A suicide car bomb flattened a court building and an explosives-rigged ambulance blew down walls like dominos near the Finance Ministry during a wave of coordinated attacks Tuesday that targeted high-profile symbols of Iraqi authority. At least 127 people were killed.
The blasts — at least five in total — marked the third major strike on government sites since August and brought uncomfortable questions for Iraqi leaders. These include signs al-Qaida in Iraq is regrouping and concerns over the readiness of Iraqi forces to handle security alone as U.S. forces depart.
The bombings also brought swift accusations about the motives behind the attacks. Officials claimed a Sunni insurgent alliance, including members of Saddam Hussein's banned Baath Party, seeks to undermine the pro-Western government ahead of elections set for March 7 and the later withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.
Authorities also faced angry questions about how bombers again found holes in Iraqi security.
"If security falls apart, then everything will collapse," said Abbas al-Bayati, head of parliament's defense committee and an ally of the Shiite government, as lawmakers convened an emergency session.
Another lawmaker, Saadi al-Barazanji, shouted: "If I were the interior minister, I would resign!"
The attacks began with a suicide strike on a police patrol. An hour later, four more explosions rumbled across Baghdad in the span of a few minutes. Suicide car bombings hit three sites: the main Appeals Court, an area outside the Finance Ministry and a government compound that includes the Labor Ministry. A roadside bomb also went off near a university.
Iraq's Health Ministry reported at least 513 people were wounded.
Hallmark of al-Qaida
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. However, multiple bombings are a hallmark of al-Qaida. The past two major strikes on Iraqi government sites were coordinated blasts in August and October that took more than 255 lives. Sunni groups linked to al-Qaida eventually issued statements saying they carried out the attacks.
Iraq's government, however, has tried to cast blame on Saddam loyalists — even parading three suspects on national television who gave what officials termed confessions for the October attacks.
No independent evidence has emerged to support a possible resurgence of the militant Baath Party cells. Instead, the government allegations are seen as attempts to deflect suspicions that al-Qaida and its insurgent allies could be regrouping before the March elections and the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces at the end of August.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government has pointed to the sharp drop in overall violence around Iraq as one of its main achievements going into the elections. Any hints of instability could cost them at the polls.
Just hours after the bombings, the government set March 7 as the date for parliamentary elections. The voting was delayed by nearly seven weeks because of bickering over election rules. The postponement — coupled with any upsurge in violence — could complicate the Pentagon's pullout timetable as pressure builds to shift troops and equipment to Afghanistan.
Al-Maliki drew a direct connection between the attacks and the political compromises that cleared the way for elections.
"The timing of the cowardly terrorist attacks ... shows that the enemies of Iraq aim to create chaos in the country and foil the political process and the elections," said a statement from the U.S.-backed prime minister.
U.S. condemns attacks
Iraq's military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, blamed the "same hands" the government claims were behind the August and October attacks: Baath loyalists and al-Qaida-linked extremists.
In Washington, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs condemned the attacks, saying Iraqi leaders who passed an elections law this week were moving the country in the right direction and "there are clearly those who are threatened by that."
In a joint statement, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill and Gen. Raymond Odierno, the top commander in Iraq, pledged to assist the Iraqi government "to bring to justice those individuals or groups for such murder."
Other statements decrying the attacks poured in from around the world.
One stood out: Neighboring Syria said it "strongly condemns the terrorist bombings." Iraq's relations with Syria have soured recently after accusations by Baghdad that the Damascus government harbors Baath Party exiles who have masterminded and waged attacks in Iraq.
The United Nations Security Council condemned the attacks "in the strongest terms," underlining the need to bring the perpetrators and sponsors to justice.
The bombings marked the most serious spate of violence in Baghdad since twin car bombs on Oct. 25 struck outside Baghdad administration offices, killing at least 155. In August, four suicide truck bombers hit the finance and foreign ministries, killing more than 100.
On a Web site known to express militant views, messages exchanged congratulations for the attacks and praised insurgents linked to al-Qaida in Iraq — with no mention of Baath Party alliances.
Children, women buried
The first attack came at midmorning in southern Baghdad. A suicide car bomber struck a police patrol in the mostly Sunni district of Dora. At least three policemen and 12 civilians were killed, said a police official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
About an hour later, four blasts roared through different parts of Baghdad in less than 10 minutes, bringing the overall death toll to at least 127, according to police and hospital officials.
"What crime have we committed? Children and women were buried under debris. Why did they (Iraqi troops) let this car bomb pass?" cried Ahmed Jabbar as he staggered through the debris near the new Finance Ministry building alongside the Tigris River — an area where all cars pass through checkpoints manned by Iraqi forces.
Police say the bomber, driving an ambulance rigged with explosives, was stopped at the last checkpoint before the Finance Ministry. Its previous headquarters was destroyed in the August attacks.
The blast ravaged an outdoor market and collapsed rows of brick walls in stores and homes. The ministry was largely unscathed, but a corner was peppered with metal chunks from the exploding vehicle.
At one home, a ginger-colored dog stood with a chain still around its neck, stranded atop a section of wall above the wreckage that killed its owners and their children. The dog's water bucket was beside him.
About two miles to the west, another suicide bomber rammed through one checkpoint near a judicial compound that included the main Appeals Court, said the spokesman of Iraq's Supreme Judicial Council, Abdul-Sattar Bayrkdar. Guards opened fire before a huge blast that leveled the court and left dozens of cars crushed and shredded.
Near the protected Green Zone in central Baghdad, which includes the U.S. Embassy and Iraqi parliament, a third suicide bomb struck close to an area with government offices including the Labor Ministry.
Finally, a roadside bomb exploded near the Technology University in eastern Baghdad, missing a passing police patrol but killing one civilian passer-by and wounding four others, police said.