By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
BAGHDAD -- Four large bombs exploded near education facilities, judicial complexes and other targets in Baghdad on Tuesday, killing at least 127 people and triggering recriminations against the Iraqi government and its security forces. Nearly 500 people were wounded, according to Iraqi police officials.
The blasts, which occurred minutes apart shortly after 10 a.m., fueled fears that elections, now scheduled for March 7, as well as the ongoing withdrawal of U.S. forces, will usher in a new phase in the battle for control of Iraq. Although that fight is now unfolding primarily in the political arena, many Iraqis fear that a rise in violence and political instability could again turn politicians into combatants.
Iraqi officials accused the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq of responsibility for Tuesday's carnage, the latest in a campaign of powerful bombings apparently designed to undermine the Shiite-led government, which insurgents deride as a byproduct of the U.S. occupation.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq has little support among residents, but the anger and sense of impotence apparent here Tuesday suggested that the insurgents have succeeded in portraying the government as feeble and incompetent.
"Everyone knows that the interior minister doesn't speak to the prime minister because of political problems," Shiite lawmaker Nasar al-Rubaie said during a televised parliamentary session in which lawmakers chastised security commanders and key ministers. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani lead slates vying for seats in the upcoming elections.
"How can we provide security for Iraqis with security ministries that respond to political parties?" Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman demanded.
The Baghdad security command, which reports to Maliki, provided a lower death toll, saying that 77 people died in the explosions. Two of four statements it issued about the bombings lambasted media coverage. It described journalists with one Western agency as "liars" and said it would sue an Iraqi television station for "defamation, abuse and incitement to violence."
In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Maliki blamed the attacks on "remnants" of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party and on al-Qaeda in Iraq. The prime minister accused the attackers of "gloating in the blood of our innocent" and attempting to "abort our democratic experiment."
Lawmakers scheduled a special session for Thursday to review the government's response to the latest attacks and its investigations into bombings in August and October that left key ministries in ruins and killed more than 250 people.
As U.S. troops sharply downscaled their presence in Iraqi cities in the summer, Maliki hailed the first phase of their withdrawal as a "victory" for Iraq and many Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate their new sovereignty. Days later, Maliki's government said it would start dismantling the concrete walls that reminded Iraqis daily of the dangers that had come to shape their lives.
The recent carnage has given those celebrations a retrospective air of hubris and led Iraqis to fear that their country may not yet be on the mend.
One of the explosions Tuesday occurred outside a bank in central Baghdad that was being used as a temporary headquarters for the Finance Ministry, which was destroyed in August.
Another blast took place outside the Judicial Institute, where judges are trained. The third occurred in the parking lot of the Karkh district courthouse, after an attacker plowed through a checkpoint and detonated explosives as guards opened fire. The building is adjacent to a fine arts academy near a children's cultural center. The fourth explosion occurred in the southwestern neighborhood of Dora, near a technical institute.
Plumes of smoke rose over the capital, darkening an already overcast day. U.S. Apache helicopters buzzed above as Iraqi emergency vehicles rushed from the bomb sites to hospitals.
Iraqis, notoriously hardened after years of sanctions and war, lashed out at their leaders for failing to keep the populace safe.
"We don't care who ends up leading us as long as it's safe again," said Delal Mahdi, a woman who was passing the Karkh courthouse. "At this point, even if it's an Israeli, as long as he's a good person, we would agree."
Hours after the blasts, security officials cordoned off several streets, paralyzing traffic and forcing thousands of people to walk home.
Tuesday's targets were softer than those in the coordinated bombings of August and October, which hit the Foreign, Finance and Justice ministries.
Residents who live near the Rafaidyan Bank, the Finance Ministry's temporary headquarters, said the explosives were packed in a small blue pickup truck that was driven into an alley next to the building. After the blast, several members of one family watched silently as Iraqi soldiers sifted through a pile of debris where their two-story house had stood.
Shukaryiah Jawad, 19, held her 1-year-old daughter. "We need help from the government. . . . We're in the street now," she said.
Nearby, two Iraqi soldiers became angry when a journalist took out a camera. As one of them hoisted his M-5 rifle in the air, the civilians scattered.
"These people are a failure," the woman's father, Jamal Mutar, fumed. "All they want to do is cover up their failures."
Special correspondents Qais Mizher, Aziz Alwan and K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.