At least 36 people were killed and 71 wounded in three massive apparently coordinated minibus-borne bombings that targeted hotels in Baghdad on Monday, less than six weeks from a general election.
Iraqi politicians and United States 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.
The first bomb struck near the Palestine and Sheraton hotels in Abu Nawaz, close to where a giant statue of Saddam was symbolically toppled almost seven years ago, at about 3.30pm local time, an Interior Ministry official said.
The second and third blasts just minutes later targeted the Babylon Hotel in the central district of Karrada and the Hamra Hotel in Jadriyah, in the south of the capital, he added.
Iraqi military spokesperson in Baghdad Major General Qassim Atta said all three bombings were suicide attacks.
An Interior Ministry official told Agence France-Presse that 36 people had been killed and 71 were wounded. The streets leading to the hotels were immediately sealed off, preventing journalists from approaching.
A security source said armed clashes broke out near the Hamra in what appeared to be a diversionary attack before the suicide bomber drove his minibus at the hotel seconds later and detonated it.
The first explosion in Abu Nawaz shook ground miles away from the site of the blast and sent plumes of smoke rising hundreds of metres into the sky.
Monday’s attacks differed from recent high-profile bombings in Baghdad in that they targeted hotels 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.
The latest attacks occurred less than two weeks after security forces sealed off Baghdad after being tipped-off that bomb-laden cars had been parked in the city.
Insurgents, weakened in the past year, have in the past six months changed tactics and mounted successful attacks on “hard” targets such as government buildings, 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.
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.
However, a bitter row has broken out in recent weeks after hundreds of candidates were banned from taking part in the election because of their alleged links with Saddam’s regime.
The dispute has alarmed Washington and the United Nations. US Vice-President Joe Biden flew in to Baghdad on a 24-hour visit at the weekend, after which he said he was confident Iraq’s leaders would find a “just” solution.
Monday’s bombings will add to Washington’s concerns, although Biden said the US supported the exclusion of candidates linked to Saddam’s outlawed Ba’ath party as well as his military and intelligence services.
“The issue is not the goal of holding individuals accountable for their past actions but the process of disqualification itself,” Biden said, urging legitimate procedures.
“Iraqis under their leaders understand that if the people see the process as fair and transparent it will enhance the credibility of the election.” — AFP