By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 28, 2010; A16
BAGHDAD -- The umbrella organization that includes al-Qaeda in Iraq has taken responsibility for three powerful bombings that targeted prominent hotels in Baghdad on Monday, calling them "legitimate targets."
The Islamic State of Iraq said the blasts, which killed at least 36 people, were the latest coordinated attack in a campaign that began in August. The effort seeks to cripple the U.S.-backed, Shiite-led government ahead of the March 7 parliamentary election.
The Sheraton, Babylon and Hamra hotels, which are heavily guarded and surrounded by blast walls, were picked because the group sees them as assisting the Iraqi government, according to a translation of the claim of responsibility issued by SITE Intelligence Group, which analyzes terrorist organizations. The hotels have housed Western journalists, whom the organization accused of writing unduly positive stories about Iraq's security forces.
"This operation suffices for a response to the falsehoods of the fools in the Green Zone and the fabricated and weak stories of heroism of their security services, which will only increase [holy warriors'] firmness, determination and reliance on Allah," the statement said.
The Sheraton, no longer associated with the hotel chain, and the Babylon are frequented by Iraqi politicians. The nearby Hamra has served as a temporary home to hundreds of Western journalists since the 2003 U.S. invasion. The Washington Post bureau is in the Hamra hotel compound.
Monday's attacks suggest that insurgents are broadening their range of targets in spectacular, coordinated mass-casualty attacks. Three previous incidents targeted key government buildings.
The Islamic State of Iraq warned that it is planning more attacks.
"If the ISI can convince the Iraqi people that their government is unable to lead them to prosperity, it might cause a leadership vacuum in Iraq and possibly capture the support of the people who have lost faith in their current government," Rita Katz, director of SITE, said in an e-mail.
The blasts featured a brazen tactic that the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said is new: In two cases, insurgents opened fire on guards manning checkpoints to pave the way for vehicles packed with explosives.
The claim of responsibility coincided with a couple of violent acts across the country.
Gunmen opened fire on buses transporting Iranian pilgrims in southern Iraq, killing two, authorities said.
In northern Iraq, a suicide bomber wearing a police uniform was shot at the entrance of a police station. Three Iraqi policemen and a U.S. soldier were wounded when explosives in the man's vest detonated, the U.S. military said.
Special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.