BAGHDAD, Iraq – Two powerful suicide car bombs blew up outside the Justice Ministry and city government offices in downtown Baghdad Sunday, killing at least 136 people in the deadliest attack in more than two years. Iraqi leaders said the attacks aimed to disrupt political progress in the months leading up to January’s crucial elections.
While violence has dropped dramatically in the country since the height of the sectarian tensions, the latest bombings underscored the precarious nature of the security gains and the insurgency’s abilities to still pull off devastating attacks in the center of what is supposed to be one of Baghdad’s most secure areas.
The street where the blasts occurred had just been reopened to vehicle traffic six months ago. Shortly after, blast walls were repositioned to allow traffic closer to the government buildings. Such changes were touted by Iraq’s prime minister as a sign that safety was returning to the city.
“The perpetrators of these treacherous and despicable acts are no longer hiding their objective but to the contrary, they publicly declare that they are targeting the state … and aiming at blocking the political process, halting it and destroying what we have achieved in the last six years,” President Jalal Talabani said.
President Barack Obama condemned the “outrageous attacks,” saying they “reveal the hateful and destructive agenda of those who would deny the Iraqi people the future that they deserve.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the “savage” suicide bombings attacks will not succeed in undermining Iraq’s progress toward stability, self-reliance and justice based on the rule of law.
There have been no claims of responsibility so far, but massive car bombs have been the hallmark of the Sunni insurgents seeking to overthrow the country’s Shiite-dominated government.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed al-Qaida and members of deposed regime of Saddam Hussein for the blasts aiming to “block the political process and the elections.”
“The cowardly terrorist acts will not break the will of the Iraqi people to continue the political process,” al-Maliki said in a statement.
Black smoke billowed from the frantic scene, as emergency service vehicles sped to the area to treat the nearly 600 wounded. Even civilian cars were being commandeered to transport the wounded to hospitals.
“The walls collapsed and we had to run out,” said Yasmeen Afdhal, 24, an employee of the Baghdad provincial administration, which was targeted by one of the car bombs. “There are many wounded, and I saw them being taken away. They were pulling victims out of the rubble, and rushing them to ambulances.”
At least 25 staff members of the Baghdad Provincial Council, which runs the city, were killed in the bombing, said council member Mohammed al-Rubaiey. Three American contractors were among the wounded.
The provincial council is the city government, which oversees a broad range of city services including distribution of food ration cards, a holdover from Saddam-era sanctions against Iraq. The council also administers garbage collection, electricity and the distribution of fuel for generators and is responsible for the maintenance of the cities schools. It is composed of 57 directly elected representatives.
The blasts are a blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has staked his reputation and re-election hopes on returning security to the country.
The attacks came as Iraq was preparing for elections scheduled for January. Officials have warned that violence by insurgents intent destabilizing the country could rise.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged “all Iraqis to unite in the face of these deplorable acts and to work with heightened urgency to protect Iraq’s political progress.”
The area where the blasts occurred is just a few hundred yards from the Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy as well as the prime minister’s offices.
The attacks occurred just hours before Iraq’s top leadership was scheduled to meet with heads of political parties on Sunday and reach a compromise on the disputed election law ahead of a crucial parliamentary vote in January.
The explosive-laden vehicles were sitting in parking garages next to the two government building, police said.
“They are targeting the government and the political process in the country,” Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, spokesman for the city’s operations command center, told The Associated Press.
The initial investigation suggests that the attackers “might have crossed some checkpoints and then detonated the bombs,” al-Mussawi said.
A pickup truck that exploded near the Justice Ministry was carrying 1,000 kilograms (2,204 pounds) of explosives, the initial investigation found. The second pickup truck that went off near the Provincial Council, was carrying 700 kilograms (1,543 pounds) of explosives.
The explosives, attached to the vehicles and hidden bellow the seats, were the only load the suicide trucks were carrying, al-Mussawi said.
The coordinated bombings were the deadliest since a series of massive truck bombs in northern Iraq killed nearly 500 villagers from the minority Yazidi sect in August 2007. In Baghdad itself, however, it is the worst attack since a series of suicide bombings against Shiite neighborhoods in April 2007 killed 183 people.
Al-Maliki toured the blast sites later in the day.
Sunday’s explosions also injured nearly 600 people who were taken to six area hospitals. Medical officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, gave the death toll.
Video images captured on a cell phone showed the second blast going off in a massive ball of flames, followed by a burst of machine gun fire.
“This is a political struggle, the price of which we are paying,” said provincial council member al-Rubaiey. “Every politician is responsible and even the government is responsible, as well as security leaders.”
Three American security contractors, working for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad were injured in the blasts, but no American embassy personnel were killed, said Philip Frayne, an embassy spokesman. Frayne could not immediately provide details about who the contractors were escorting to the site, which company they worked for or, or the nature of their injuries.
The explosions were just a few hundred yards from Iraq’s Foreign Ministry which is still rebuilding after massive bombings there in August. The bombings were a devastating blow for a country that has seen a dramatic drop in violence since the height of the sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007.