BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Leaders from across Iraq’s sectarian divide pleaded for unity at a special session of parliament on Friday, gathering under high security to condemn a suicide bombing that tore through the building the day before.
A senior government source said authorities had intelligence that militants were planning an attack on parliament before Thursday’s bombing, which killed a member of parliament and wounded two dozen other people in the building’s restaurant.
Three workers in the cafe had been detained, a top lawmaker from the ruling Shi’ite Alliance bloc said. The Interior Ministry said it would not give details of the investigation.
The attack was the worst breach of security in Baghdad’s most secure area — the Green Zone that houses parliament, government offices and the U.S. embassy. The U.S. military blamed the bombing on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda. “We had prior intelligence that there would be an attack on the parliament,” the source told Reuters, without giving specific details of when the information had been received or what was the nature of the threat.
Security was heavy on Friday as parliament met. All vehicles and their drivers were thoroughly searched, mobile checkpoints set up and streets blocked off. Police raided houses inside the sprawling compound.
The bombing came two months into a crackdown in Baghdad that U.S. officials hope will give the government breathing space to pull Iraq back from the brink of civil war between majority Shi’ites and once dominant minority Sunni Arabs.
“Whether we are in or out of the government and the political process, we have to find a solution to national reconciliation,” Shi’ite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, who survived an assassination attempt in February, told parliament.
Previous calls for unity by Iraq’s leaders have mostly fallen on deaf ears as sectarian violence has spiralled. “This is undeniably a difficult blow, but it should unify us to confront the evil of terrorism and it proves that terrorism is indiscriminate — Sunnis, Shi’ites, Kurds and Arabs were maimed in this attack,” Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh, a Kurd, told Reuters.
Parliament Speaker Mahmoud Mashhadani, a Sunni, opened the special session by asking MPs to read verses of the Koran to mourn the death of Mohammed Awdh, a member of the National Front for Iraqi Dialogue, a small Sunni party. “We are a people and they are a gang. Have you ever heard of a gang that has conquered a people in history?” he said, referring to those behind the attack.
Iraqi officials are investigating how the suicide bomber managed to slip past checkpoints and blow himself up while parliamentarians were eating lunch.
Hasan al-Senaid, a senior lawmaker from the Shi’ite Alliance, said the three cafeteria workers had been detained for questioning but had not been charged. Some parliamentary guards were also being investigated but none were being held.
The senior government source said initial evidence showed a member of a Sunni lawmaker’s security team might have played a role in the attack.
The U.S. military had initially said eight people were killed and more than 20 wounded in Thursday’s blast. On Friday they revised the toll down to one killed and two dozen wounded, in line with figures from Iraqi officials.
The U.S. military disclosed earlier this month that two suicide vests had been found in the zone. Security officials in the zone were tipped off about a third but it was not found.
The explosives used in Thursday’s attack would have had to pass through an outer checkpoint manned by U.S. and Iraqi troops and inner checkpoints guarded by security contractors and foreign troops in the U.S.-led coalition.
Washington and some Iraqi politicians dismissed suggestions the attack signalled a failure of the U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in the capital.