x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Twin bombings shake Baghdad

Council members are among the dead as the powerful blasts hit central Baghdad, killing at least 136 people and wounding more than 500.

BAGHDAD // A pair of powerful bombs exploded in central Baghdad yesterday morning, killing at least 136 people and wounding more than 500, a toll that makes it one of the worst attacks of its kind in the Iraqi capital. The first blast took place near the justice ministry shortly after 9.30am, destroying streets clogged with rush-hour traffic. Soon afterwards, another huge bomb detonated outside the office of the Baghdad provincial authorities.

Both explosions happened near the heavily fortified Green Zone, in areas typically thick with Iraqi security forces. The road where the blasts occurred was reopened to traffic only a few months ago, in what was heralded as a sign that safety was returning to Baghdad's blood-soaked streets. "The shock wave knocked me unconscious," said Mohmmed al Suhayli, a security officer at Mansour hotel, close to where the bombs went off. "The last thing I saw was glass and bodies flying everywhere. A bomb that big, it's a huge breach of security.

"If the terrorists could penetrate the city like this, I believe the situation will get more fragile, especially as the elections are very close. We are going to see more and more of these attacks." While last night there had been no claims of responsibility, the Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, blamed Baathists and Sunni militants, who, he said, had their hands "stained by the blood of the Iraqi people".

"The cowardly acts of terrorism that occurred today must not weaken the resolution of Iraqis to continue their journey to fight the followers of the fallen regime, the Baathists and al Qa'eda," he said in a statement released by his office. Mr al Maliki visited the scene of the blasts, and appeared visibly shaken by the carnage he saw there. A similar attack, also double car bombs aimed at government offices, hit the city on August 19, killing 100, a day known as Black Wednesday. Those explosions were blamed by the Iraqi government on Baathists living in neighbouring Syria.

At least 25 staff members of Baghdad provincial council lost their lives in yesterday's bombing, but, according to an officer at the interior ministry, the real target may have been a meeting designed to push forward stalled election legislation, without which the national vote scheduled for January cannot take place. "We cannot be sure of the intent, but the bombs went off near the venue for a gathering of officials," the security officer said in an interview. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to talk to the press. The meeting in question was subsequently postponed, adding another hurdle to the process of passing the vital election law, which is quickly running out of time.

The interior ministry officer insisted the attack, while serious, did not pose a real threat to the state. "We are not worried about the future of Iraq because we are moving in the right direction, away from violence," he said. "The police are getting stronger and have actually been quite successful in reducing attacks." The blasts were so intense that about 150 vehicles in the area, many of them containing passengers, were set on fire. Dozens died and were seriously injured because they could not escape from their cars.

The death toll seems certain to rise, with many of the injured suffering from serious wounds. "The walls collapsed and we had to run out," Yasmeen Afdhal, 24, an employee of the Baghdad provincial council, told the Associated Press, "There are many wounded, and I saw them being taken away. They were pulling victims out of the rubble, and rushing them to ambulances." Other witnesses reported bodies being torn apart by the bombs, and the remains of women and children lying in the street as city emergency services struggled to respond and get the injured to six Baghdad hospitals.

General levels of violence in Iraq have fallen since 2007, but the numbers of dead and injured still make for horrific reading. September was one of the least violent months in years, yet still 225 people were killed. And despite the reduced number of attacks, Iraq, including the capital city with its massive security presence, remains highly vulnerable to this type of massive attack. Those aimed at government offices appear to be carried out with the intention of undermining faith in the leadership of Mr al Maliki. He is running for re-election and has staked his future on a record to improved security.

"This is a political struggle, the price of which we are paying," said a Baghdad provincial council member, Mohammad al Rubaiey. "Every politician is responsible and even the government is responsible, as well as security leaders." nlatif@thenational.ae