By Qais Mizher, Leila Fadel and Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; A11
BAGHDAD -- A suicide bomber driving a truck packed with explosives attacked the Iraqi Interior Ministry's forensics division Tuesday morning, killing at least 38 people.
The attack, a day after coordinated bombings targeting three landmark hotels, drove up the 24-hour death toll in Baghdad to nearly 75. In all, nearly 150 people were wounded in the explosions.
Outside the building targeted Tuesday, residents and police officers blamed the bloodshed on political rivalry, saying the country's leaders had been too distracted to improve security in the capital.
"This unjust explosion is the result of disagreements between political parties over seats," said Salamn Arazoqi, 55, a butcher whose shop was destroyed in the blast. "The civilians are the only victims of it."
Police officers at the scene were uncharacteristically blunt. When an argument broke out over whether to allow a reporter access to the site, one officer prevailed by saying: "Let him work -- we shouldn't keep covering up the mistakes of the politicians."
Although the police at the scene put the death toll at 38, the Baghdad Operations Command, which controls security in the capital, said nine people were killed and 67 wounded.
The recent attacks and a string of powerful, coordinated bombings that targeted government buildings last year are thought to have been carried out by Sunni extremists determined to topple Iraq's U.S.-backed, Shiite-led government. Government officials say members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, in hopes of returning to power, have joined forces with the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq to try to make Iraq ungovernable as the U.S. military withdraws.
The recent bloodshed and political jockeying ahead of the March 7 parliamentary elections have exacerbated sectarian tensions. Hundreds of politicians have been barred from the election for their alleged allegiance to the Baath Party.
"Let me tell you one thing," one police officer at the bomb scene said, standing near concrete barriers that were toppled by the blast. "The best of our commanders are from the Baath Party, and if anyone tells you this explosion was carried out by al-Qaeda or Baathists, don't believe them."
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, speaking before Tuesday's bombing, noted that the recent coordinated attacks have generally happened weeks apart, suggesting that the organization behind them is unable to plan and carry out sustained assaults.
But he also told journalists that al-Qaeda in Iraq, which he blamed for Monday's bombings, has "morphed into a covert terrorist organization."
"Their focus is to conduct clear terrorism," he said.
Odierno said al-Qaeda in Iraq is currently controlled by five to 10 highly educated Iraqis with backgrounds in engineering and finance. Those leaders continue to take orders from Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, an Egyptian militant thought to head the group.
No longer able to control large areas in Baghdad and northern Iraq, the group has set up small, well-trained cells, Odierno said.
Odierno said the 60 days after the vote are likely to be critical to security, because political infighting over myriad unresolved issues could make establishing a new government a protracted process. More blasts are likely in the days ahead, he said.
"Clearly, I expect there'll be other attempts between now and March 7," he said. "We're focused on doing the best we can to stop these attacks."
Mizher is a special correspondent. Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.