BAGHDAD (AFP) – A suicide attacker Tuesday blew up his vehicle as he raced it at Iraq’s forensics headquarters in central Baghdad, killing 18 people, injuring 80 and destroying the building, officials said.
The attack came a day after three huge minibus bombs targeting hotels killed dozens in the Iraqi capital and amid heightened tension following the hanging of Saddam Hussein’s notorious henchman “Chemical” Ali Hassan al-Majid.
An interior ministry official put the toll at 18 dead — five policemen and 13 civilians — and 80 people injured. Those killed all died in the blast while most of the injured were pulled from underneath the rubble of the building.
Iraqi military spokesman in Baghdad Major General Qassim Atta said the attack targeted the forensics institute in the central neighbourhood of Karrada, which had been bombed twice before.
“At 10.45 am a suicide bomber raced his vehicle towards the institute” and blew it up, said Atta.
An interior ministry official said the blast had wrecked the institute.
“The building collapsed soon after the explosion. Dozens of people usually work in the (forensics) institute,” he added, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The blast came a day after three huge and apparently co-ordinated minibus bombs targeted hotels in Baghdad, killing at least 36 people and wounding 71.
Iraqi politicians and US forces have warned of rising violence ahead of the March 7 vote, the second parliamentary ballot since the 2003 US-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein but ushered in a deadly and long-lasting insurgency.
Monday’s hotel bombings came on the same day the government announced that Majid, a symbol of the fallen regime, had been executed.
Majid, better known by his macabre nickname “Chemical Ali” was hanged just days after he was sentenced to death for the 1988 gassing of thousands of Kurds, a crime that shocked the world.
The execution comes amid a bitter row sparked by the exclusion of hundreds of candidates from the election because of their alleged links with Saddam, which could see Sunni Arabs marginalised from the political process.
The election is seen as a crucial step towards consolidating Iraq’s democracy and securing a complete US military exit by the end of 2011, as planned.
The dispute over the election list has alarmed the United States, and the latest bombings will add to Washington’s concerns.
Monday’s attacks differed from recent high-profile bombings in Baghdad in that they targeted hotels, one of the capital’s few remaining symbols of tourism, rather than government buildings.
Nearly 400 people were killed and more than 1,000 were wounded last year in co-ordinated vehicle bombings at government buildings, including the ministries of finance, foreign affairs and justice in August, October and December.
Insurgents, weakened in the past year, have in the past six months changed tactics and mounted successful attacks on “hard” targets such as government offices, rather than so-called soft targets in civilian areas.
There are widespread fears, in the wake of the bloody attacks to hit Baghdad in the second half of 2009, that political violence will rise in the weeks leading up to the March vote.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said extremists were trying to upend progress toward democracy, while UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged Iraqis to remain on a path to reconciliation despite persistent unrest that plagues the country.
US Vice President Joe Biden made a 24-hour visit to Baghdad at the weekend after which he said he was confident Iraq’s leaders would find a “just” solution to the exclusions issue.