Militant groups are finding new ways to foil Iraqi security — hiding explosives in the chassis of vehicles or tucking them into secret compartments, the top U.S. commander in Iraq said Tuesday as Baghdad was again hit by a suicide car bomb that sheared off the front of the main crime lab. At least 22 people were killed.
The attack came a day after car bombings struck three Baghdad hotels favored by Western journalists and security contractors. The back-to-back blasts underscored the evolving tactics of suspected Sunni militants to target high-profile sites with periodic — but powerful — assaults that show high degrees of planning and coordination.
The aim appears twofold: to maximize the blows to the Shiite-led government and exploit security gaps with Iraqi forces now almost entirely in control of checkpoints and patrols as the U.S. military draws down.
Any signs of backsliding on security would hurt the American-backed administration of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is using the drop in overall violence across Iraq as one of the pillars of his campaign in March 7 national elections. But al-Maliki is also under pressure to reach out to Sunnis — who were once favored by Saddam Hussein — to fend off Shiite rivals in upcoming voting.
Insurgents such as al-Qaida in Iraq "have become more creative at how to conduct attacks," the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, told reporters.
The methods include wrapping explosives into the gears and slats of vehicle chassis or into carefully concealed chambers, he said.
He said Iraqi authorities have requested scanners capable of looking inside sealed portions of vehicles. Iraqi forces have been reluctant to expand the use of bomb-sniffing dogs because of the widely held Muslim tradition that avoids contact with dogs.
"They are willing to use them against vehicles," he said. "They don't want to use them against people."
Odierno's comments came as Iraq defended the use of a British-supplied bomb-detection device that is the subject of probes about whether it actually works. Britain has banned its export to Iraq and Afghanistan, but Iraqi security forces continue to operate the hand-held units at checkpoints.
It's not certain whether the bombers in this week's attacks passed through Iraqi inspections before reaching their targets. But the blasts left officials again facing accusations of security lapses.
In Tuesday's attack, the bomber tried to drive a bomb-rigged pickup truck through a checkpoint and around blast walls protecting the forensic evidence office run by the Interior Ministry, said police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief media.
The force of the blast toppled some of the 10-foot concert blast walls weighing seven tons and sliced away portions of the building's facade. At least 22 people were killed — including 18 police officers and some civilian visitors — and nearly 90 were wounded, said police and hospital officials.
The office mainly dealt with data collected during criminal investigations, including fingerprints and other evidence. It is next to the Interior Ministry's major crimes office, which deals with terrorism cases.
A day before, three suicide car bombings struck hotels in central Baghdad in quick succession. In at least one attack, gunmen flanked the vehicle and drove away guards. At least 41 people were killed and some offices of Western media were badly damaged.
The timing of Monday's blast — as Saddam's notorious cousin "Chemical Ali" was hanged — brought speculation about retaliation by insurgents.
But Odierno said he saw "absolutely no connection" with the bombings Monday. The U.S. military did not have any immediate comment on Tuesday's bombing.
"We didn't turn Chemical Ali over until yesterday afternoon ... There was no way anybody could have known about that," Odierno told journalists Tuesday in his office at Camp Victory, the sprawling U.S. military headquarters on the outskirts of Baghdad.
Baath loyalists to blame?
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the two days of blasts. In the most recent major attacks in Baghdad — in August, October and December — a group linked to al-Qaida said it carried out the bombings. Each wave of blasts targeted government sites, such as ministries and courts, and each claimed more than 100 lives.
Al-Maliki, however, has focused his blame on sympathizers of Saddam's now-outlawed Baath party from his Sunni-dominated regime. It's seen as possible attempts to divert attention from security shortcomings. But it also has angered Sunni leaders who claim the Shiite-led government is trying to tarnish Sunnis before the critical elections in March to decide Iraq's leadership.
Odierno seemed to offer some backing for al-Maliki's claims — suggesting that hard-core Baath loyalists have made occasional pacts with Sunni insurgents such as al-Qaida in Iraq.
"In some cases, they work together to move toward their own objectives," he said, noting that multiple and coordinated attacks have become a hallmark of al-Qaida in Iraq.
Odierno said U.S. military intelligence indicates between five and 10 main insurgent leaders planning the attacks in Baghdad. He said some of the leaders are believed to be university trained, with degrees in business administration, engineering and law.
He said the duels between Iraqi forces and insurgents show no signs of easing.
"This is still punch, counterpunch," Odierno said.
'Chemical Ali' buried
In Saddam's home village near Tikrit, about 80 miles north of Baghdad, the body of Ali Hassan al-Majid — widely known as "Chemical Ali" — was brought from Baghdad and was met by about 200 people after sundown. The coffin was wrapped in an Iraqi flag.
Al-Majid was then buried near the grave of Saddam, who was executed in December 2006.
Al-Majid was hanged Monday for atrocities such as the deaths of an estimated 5,000 Kurds in a poison gas attack in 1988 and other crimes against humanity.
Local authorities demanded a quick and simple burial without chanting or firing shots in the air as is common in Iraqi funerals, said an official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to media.
In the Kurdish town of Halabja in northern Iraq, the scene of the gas attack, more than 400 Kurdish government officials and survivors gathered at a monument to the victims.
"I am wondering which of my family's graves I would visit first to tell them about the death of Chemical Ali so they can sleep in peace," said Parvin Kamal Jalal, a 53-year-old woman who said she lost her parents and 12 other family members in the attack.
In Baghdad, Iraqi lawmakers endorsed a $72.3 billion budget, with cuts in the salaries of top Iraqi officials and lawmakers, said Sami al-Atroushi, a member of the parliament's finance committee.
The budget, which still needs approval from Iraq's presidency council, is a boost from the $58.6 million spending approved for last year.
Iraq has suffered from falling oil prices as it tries to pay for reconstruction projects and expansion of security forces before the full U.S. military withdrawal at the end of next year.