BAGHDAD, Iraq, (AP) – Two powerful car bombs exploded in downtown Baghdad Sunday, killing at least 91 people in an apparent attempt to target the fragile city’s government offices, Iraqi medical officials and authorities said.
While violence has dropped dramatically in the country since the height of the sectarian tensions, such bombings like Sunday’s demonstrate the precarious nature of the security gains and the insurgency’s abilities to still pull off devastating attacks in the heart of what is supposed to be one of Baghdad’s most secure areas.
The explosions come as Iraq is preparing for elections scheduled this January, and many Iraqi officials have warned that violence by insurgents intent on making the country appear unstable could rise.
The blasts, which rivaled coordinated blasts against two government ministries in August that killed more than 100 people, also appeared to be a blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who has staked his reputation and re-election hopes on returning security to the country.
The area is just a few hundred yards from the heavily protected Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy as well as the prime minister’s offices. The street where the blasts occurred was just reopened to vehicle traffic a few months ago, in what was supposed to be a sign that safety was returning to the once devastated city.
“This is a political struggle, the price of which we are paying,” said a Shiite member of the Baghdad Provincial Council, Mohammed al-Rubaiey. He said at least 25 members of the provincial council staff were killed in the blasts and that the wounded were still being taken to the hospital. “Every politician is responsible and even the government is responsible, as well as security leaders.”
Sunday’s explosions, which also injured at least 250 people, went off less than a minute apart near two prominent government institutions — the Ministry of Justice and the headquarters of the Baghdad provincial administration — in a neighborhood that houses a number of government institutions.
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.
Two American security contractors were injured in the blasts, but no American embassy personnel were killed, said Philip Frayne, an embassy spokesman in Baghdad. Frayne could not provide details about who the contractors worked for, or the nature of their injuries.
U.S. security contractors could be seen at the site of the explosions helping the wounded before they were transported for treatment to six different hospitals around the capital.
Iraqi hospital officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, gave the death toll.
The explosions were caused by car bombs aimed at government institutions, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, spokesman for the city’s operations command center. He added that it was not known whether they were suicide attacks.
The explosive-laden vehicles were parked in car parks next to the two government building, police said.
“They are targeting the government and the political process in the country,” al-Mousawi told The Associated Press.
Yasmeen Afdhal, a 24-year-old employee at the Baghdad provincial administration, said that after the first blast, dozens of employees began fleeing the building.
“The walls collapsed and we had to run out,” said Afdhal, who was not injured in the explosion. “There are many wounded, and I saw them being taken away. They were taking victims out of the rubble, and rushing them to ambulances.”
Black smoke could be seen billowing from the area where the blasts occurred, as emergency service vehicles sped to the scene. Even civilian cars were being used to transport the wounded to hospitals, al-Mousawi said.
The explosions were just a few hundred yards from Iraq’s Foreign Ministry which is still rebuilding after massive bombings there in August killed about 100 people. 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.