Series of explosions rock downtown Baghdad, killing 5 people and wounding 16

By Lara Jakes, AP
Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Explosions rock downtown Baghdad, killing 5

BAGHDAD — Car bombs ripped through downtown Baghdad early Tuesday, killing five and wounding at least 16 people in the latest attack near government buildings in the Iraqi capital, police and health officials said.

At least three blasts occurred within minutes of each other near the heavily protected Green Zone, which houses the U.S. Embassy, the Iraqi parliament and other government offices. The attacks raise fresh questions about the government’s ability to protect itself and its citizens as U.S. forces prepare to leave Iraq.

“There were two military checkpoints using detectors at the beginning of the street, how can such car bombs manage to enter and explode?” said a woman who identified herself as Um Ali, her cheeks smeared with blood as she screamed at reporters, echoing the frustrations voiced by many Iraqis.

The explosions came exactly a week after suicide bombers killed 127 people and wounded more than 500 in a series of five bombings across the capital — three of which appeared to target government buildings. Suicide bombers on Aug. 19 and Oct. 25 also targeted government ministries and buildings in a series of horrific bombings in which more than 250 people were killed.

Two of Tuesday’s car bombs detonated near the Iraqi government’s Foreign and Immigration ministries; a third went off near the Iranian embassy, two police officials said. It was not clear whether those buildings were the targets. The Foreign Ministry is still under construction after being hit during the August bombing.

The Iraqi officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.

Thick clouds of black smoke could be seen lingering over the area. Firefighters and neighborhood residents worked to put out fires, while Iraqi security forces fired their guns into the air to disperse growing crowds.

“I had just left my house to go to my school when the big explosion took place,” said 12-year-old Mohammed Hussein, who lives nearby. “My father shouted at me to go back home. There is no need for school today.”

The U.S. military said it would send forensic and explosive experts to help Iraqi authorities investigate the bombings.

Army Lt. Brian Wierzbicki, a U.S. military spokesman, said the military had reports of three or four explosions outside the Green Zone, while Iraqi officials said there were three explosions.

Wierzbicki did not have any immediate reports of casualties.

About an hour after the 7:30 a.m. explosions, a joint patrol of Iraqi and U.S. forces discovered and dismantled a fourth car bomb before it exploded, Iraqi authorities said. The 2009 pickup truck, parked outside a Green Zone gate, was packed with seven bombs that were covered by blankets and cartons, said an Interior Ministry official and a Baghdad police officer. Both spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

The three blasts came at the start of the Iraqi workday, and were followed by a series of smaller mortar attacks and assassination attempts on Iraqi lawmakers that unfolded across the capital throughout the morning.

A TV cameraman was injured in one of the blasts as he waited among a group of journalists headed on a government-sponsored trip to a camp housing Iranian exiles near the border with Iran. It was not immediately clear who the cameraman worked for, or the extent of his injuries, said an Associated Press reporter at the scene.

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombings. Insurgent groups associated with al-Qaida have claimed responsibility for the previous attacks in August, October and last week, although Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki also has blamed loyalists of former dictator Saddam Hussein.

The bombings last week sparked outrage among Iraqi lawmakers who demanded al-Maliki and his top aides be held accountable for gaping, and continuing, security breaches.

The attacks have raised serious questions about the abilities of Iraqi security forces ahead of the U.S. withdrawal of combat troops. The American military has warned of a possible rise in violence with insurgents hoping to destabilize the government ahead of the March 7 parliamentary elections.

On Monday, Iraqi Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi acknowledged shortcomings in the security forces but said insurgents have changed their tactics amid the U.S. troop withdrawal.

“The nature of terrorism has changed, and terrorists are conducting attacks that aim to inflict the largest casualties,” al-Obeidi said.

He did not indicate what he meant by changing tactics. However, much of the recent violence has targeted government institutions, an apparent attempt to undermine al-Maliki’s government head of the elections, as opposed to violence that appeared designed to spark Shiite-Sunni tensions.

The U.S. has pinned the pace of its withdrawal of combat troops by Aug. 31, 2010, to the success of the Iraqi elections, with the top American military commander in Iraq ordering the bulk of U.S. forces to remain in place until after the elections.

All but 50,000 U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Iraq under a plan announced by President Barack Obama. Under an Iraqi-U.S. security pact, the remainder of those troops will leave by the end of 2011.

Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report.

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