BAGHDAD – A truck bomb exploded across the street from Iraq’s Foreign Ministry near the Green Zone Wednesday, knocking out concrete slabs and windows and leaving a mass of charred cars outside as a wave of explosions around Baghdad killed at least 95 people and wounded more than 400.
A suicide truck bomber also targeted the Finance Ministry minutes earlier in the deadliest apparently co-ordinated attack in Iraq so far this year – a major challenge to Iraqi control of Baghdad. A steady escalation of attacks following the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. troops from urban areas has heightened fears that government troops are not ready to provide security.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed Sunni insurgents for the recent attacks, saying they were taking advantage of government efforts to restore a sense of normalcy by removing concrete blast walls from the main roads in Baghdad. Iraqi security forces have promised they will be gone by mid-September, an attempt to capitalize on a low overall level of violence compared with recent years.
“These attacks represent a reaction to the opening of streets and bridges and the lifting of barriers inside the residential areas,” al-Maliki said in a statement.
He said the Iraqi government must re-evaluate security measures – the first government acknowledgment of security failings following the recent uptick in violence.
“The criminal acts that took place today require us to re-evaluate our plans and security mechanisms in order to confront the terrorist challenges and to increase co-operation between security forces and the Iraqi people,” he added.
He said an alliance of al-Qaida in Iraq and Saddam Hussein loyalists was behind the attacks, and the government has placed Iraq’s army and police forces on high alert.
The White House condemned the attacks, with spokesman Robert Gibbs saying they show “how far extremists will go to wreak havoc.” But he said that the overall number of attacks in Iraq is “at or near an all-time low.”
The U.S. military has warned that the terror network is trying to provoke new bloodshed to undermine public trust in the Shiite-led Iraqi government.
“The terrorists are trying to rekindle the cycle of violence of previous years by creating an atmosphere of tension among the Iraqi people,” Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in a statement. “Our security forces must be more alert and firm. Also, the political groups must unite.”
Sunni and Shiite extremists remain active in Iraq, and the U.S. military has detected some political violence ahead of next year’s national elections. But truck bombs and suicide attacks bear the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq.
“The security forces have failed to protect the government buildings despite tight security measures and advanced equipment and this reflects huge shortcomings,” said Saeed Jabar, a 35-year-old government employee. “It is a message to Iraqi officials that they should stop their exaggerations about the stability of this country.”
The most devastating strike blackened the facade of the Foreign Ministry, killing at least 59 people and wounding 250, according to police and hospital officials. Rescue workers dug through rubble and debris near the ministry, which is adjacent to the Green Zone, the most heavily protected part of the capital.
The explosives-laden truck was parked in a largely unguarded parking lot across the street, but the force of the blast tore through the 10-story building, which itself is surrounded by a concrete blast wall, as well as nearby apartment blocs.
Dozens of cars were charred and plumes of smoke rose into the sky.
That attack occurred just minutes after a suicide truck bomber took aim at the Finance Ministry in northern Baghdad, detonating his explosives near a joint Iraqi police and army patrol outside and causing part of a nearby overpass to collapse.
Hospital officials said at least 28 people were killed and 117 wounded in that blast.
Mortars also slammed into the Green Zone, Iraqi officials said, with one landing near the U.N. compound, briefly delaying a press conference being held to discuss humanitarian issues on the sixth anniversary of the Aug. 19, 2003, bombing at the world body’s headquarters that killed 22 people, including top U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello.
The U.S. military, which turned over responsibility for securing the Green Zone to the Iraqis on Jan. 1 as part of a new security pact, said it could not confirm any mortar attacks.
Another blast in the commercial area of western Baghdad’s Baiyaa district killed two people and wounded 16, while a bombing in the commercial district of Bab al-Muadham killed six people and wounded 24, authorities said.
An Interior Ministry official, speaking separately, put the total death toll at 88. Conflicting casualty tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of bombings in Iraq. The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Monday that he wanted to deploy U.S. soldiers alongside Iraqi and Kurdish troops in northern Iraq where some of the worst attacks in recent weeks have been carried out.
U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq’s cities on June 30 under a security pact that outlines the American withdrawal by the end of 2011. President Barack Obama has ordered all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving a contingency of up to 50,000 U.S. troops in training and advising roles.
Odierno said al-Maliki has been receptive to the idea, though has not approved it.
Associated Press Writers Hamid Ahmed and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.