A suicide car bomb detonated outside the Interior Ministry's forensics department in Baghdad Tuesday, killing more than 18 people and severely damaging the building in the second consecutive day of high-profile attacks.
An Interior Ministry official said that in addition to those killed, at least 80 people were injured in the blast, which took place near a checkpoint close to the forensics department on al-Tahariyat Square in the Karrada neighborhood. At least five of those killed and half of those wounded were police officers injured when part of the building collapsed, he said. The explosion also sent glass and pieces of metal flying through nearby cafes. It was the third time in two years that the directorate had been bombed, he said.
Following Monday's suicide bombings of three major hotels in Baghdad, the attacks were widely seen as an escalating attempt to destablize the country ahead of key parliamentary elections in March.
The top US general in Iraq said that while there was no definitive proof, he believed Monday's attacks were conducted by Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) – an organization whose leaders appear to be increasingly well-educated and increasingly Iraqi, he said.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Gen. Raymond Odierno added that, since August, AQI had transformed itself from an organization dedicated to sustaining a long-term insurgency to one that was conducting clear-cut terrorist attacks aimed at destabilizing the government and weakening support for Iraqi security forces.
AQI has taken credit for a series of coordinated bombings starting in August that targeted key government institutions – among them the Foreign, Justice, and Finance ministries – with huge suicide bombs.
Iraq relying on fraudulent devices
At security checkpoints – including those surrounding Baghdad – the Iraqi government has relied heavily on an explosive detection device manufactured by a British private company that is being investigated for fraud. Last week, the British government stopped the export of the hand-held devices, which the US military has determined to be "totally ineffective," but they are still widely in use in Baghdad.
The Iraqi government is believed to have paid more than $18,000 each for each of the devices under an $850 million contract. An investigative BBC report on Jan. 22 found that they were manufactured for about $250 each, using the same sensors found in antishoplifting devices.
The case has sparked the Iraqi government's own investigation as well as anger among ordinary Iraqis. That anger was evident in the streets surrounding the blast on Tuesday, where the impact tore through surrounding apartment buildings, leaving residents injured and homeless.
Basim Mohammad Ismail, a Ministry of Interior employee, says he was having breakfast with his family when the blast tore through his apartment.
"It was just one second but it caused so much destruction and pain,” he says, picking up a piece of metal that came flying through their window. "My 8-year-old daughter is in hospital – her beautiful face is full of glass splinters — she might lose her eyesight." He said he believed everyone in the government knew the explosives detection devices were ineffective and bought them anyway to make money from them.
"The security agencies are a failure. The explosives detectors are a failure," says Raed Issam, whose niece and nephew were also injured by flying glass. "[The Iraqi government] knows that but they are too busy stealing. They don’t care what happens to us, as long as they are safe in their secure Green Zone."
Odierno: Bombs may be made in 'Baghdad belt'
On Monday, car bombs struck at three high-profile hotels in central Baghdad, one of them used by foreign journalists. Casualty estimates varied widely but at least 16 people appear to have been killed in the bombings, which extensively damaged the hotels and surrounding buildings.
Odierno said the explosives detonated on Monday were much less powerful than those seen in previous high-profile bombings, but at least one of the audacious attacks marked a change in tactics.
Gunmen outside the Hamra Hotel, popular with Western journalists, opened fire on the compound's security guards before the suicide truck bomb drove through the barrier and detonated.
"It's the first time we've seen it executed this way," Odierno told journalists."As time goes on, their ability to impact becomes less and less, so they are trying to get the biggest outcome."
While the US and Iraq had made great progress, they should not underestimate the difficulty of dealing with a sophisticated and constantly shifting organization, he said.
"This is a slog. This is not something that changes immediately overnight — it takes time to develop capacity, to develop investigative capacity, it takes time to develop the relationship between the judiciary and the Iraqi police regarding evidence," he told a group of Western reporters.
Odierno said he believed most of the suicide car bombs were being assembled in rural areas outside Baghdad, where there was minimal Iraqi security presence, and driven into the city.
Those areas – known as the Baghdad belt – were the focus of the US military surge three years ago when thousands of American troops were placed in the area to prevent the flow of ammunition and fighters into the capital. In many of the areas there were not enough effective Iraqi security forces to replace them when the Americans pulled out.
(Sahar Issa contributed to this report.)
RELATED STORIES: * 30 dead as Iraq bombs target hotels popular with Westerners
* Baghdad bombings: Iraqis at the scene blame political partieshttp://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2009/1025/p06s01-wome.html
* Shattered in Baghdad blasts: Iraqi faith in security forceshttp://www.csmonitor.com/World/Middle-East/2009/0819/p06s08-wome.html