Baghdad on Wednesday suffered a string of attacks that left almost 100 people dead in the latest sign that violence in Iraq has intensified in the wake of a handover from US troops to Iraqi security forces.
The attacks also wounded at least 500 in the bloodiest day in the capital since US troops withdrew from the country’s cities in late June. The two deadliest bombings were at the finance and foreign ministries, which are among the most heavily guarded buildings in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said.
Separately, at least six mortars rained down on two central locations, Iraqi officials said. Three of these were aimed at the Green Zone, the fortified enclave where the US embassy and many Iraqi government offices are located.
“We expected these types of attacks to occur leading up to and after the 30 June transition and it’s clearly efforts by insurgent groups to try to exploit sectarian tensions and incite violence,” the Pentagon said.
“These are tragic, unfortunate acts designed to try to propagandise and to test Iraqi security forces but they certainly aren’t going to deter the progress that has been made nor do we anticipate that we will see violence spiralling out of control [as it did in] 2006-2007.”
Prime minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed the attacks on former officials of Saddam Hussein’s regime and vowed to revamp security measures. Mr Maliki returned to Baghdad on Wednesday from Damascus, where he had asked Syrian officials to hand over former Baath Party officials suspected of supporting the Sunni insurgency.
US military officials in Baghdad said there was little they could do in response to the surge in violence other than put pressure on Mr Maliki to make better decisions. Senior American officials have long criticised the prime minister for being overconfident and impulsive.
The number of deaths linked to sectarian violence has declined in that time. Sectarian killings in Baghdad alone totalled 1,600 in December 2006 before coming down to well below 100.
But the US reported an increase in violent civilian deaths across the country in April, even ahead of the transition to Iraqi forces, while adding that “these attacks have not rekindled a cycle of ethno-sectarian violence”.
Referring to what he called the “uptick” in violence, Robert Gates, US defence secretary, said last week: “This is not the Sunnis coming after the Shia. This is al-Qaeda. And it’s one of the reasons that the Shia have been as restrained as they have and not reacted.”
There have also been tensions between Iraqi and US military forces since the US pull-out, which Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, billed as a “great victory” for Iraqis.
Since that time, his government has sharply limited the mobility and authority of US troops in the capital and Mr Maliki now favours a referendum in January to bring ahead the date of US forces’ complete withdrawal from the current schedule of the end of 2011.
Major General Qassim Atta, a spokesman for the Baghdad operations centre, played down the significance of Wednesday’s attacks.
“The satellite television networks are exaggerating this matter in an attempt to affect the political process,” he told the government-run Iraqia channel. “The situation remains under control, and the war against terrorism continues.”
But officials said the bombing outside the foreign ministry killed at least 60 and wounded 315.
The blast was particularly deadly because the government has recently removed some of the concrete walls that the US military had erected.
At the Finance Ministry, at least 35 people were reported killed and 228 wounded when another bomb, also possibly carried in a vehicle, exploded nearby.
Mr Maliki’s government recently ordered the removal of blast walls along major roads. The area outside the Foreign Ministry is among those where security measures have been eased.
American explosives ordnance teams responded to both ministry bombings, and US Apache helicopters could be seen hovering overhead. Some US soldiers stood on the roof of the building across the street from the Foreign Ministry while others established a security cordon. Soldiers took photographs and sifted through debris outside the foreign ministry.
“Just make sure you photograph us doing nothing,” one of the American soldiers said wryly to a reporter taking photos. “Because that’s what we’re supposed to be doing now.”
Iraq’s top Shia Muslim religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, issued a statement condemning the violence and calling on the security forces to do more to keep people safe.