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Iraq beefs up security in Baghdad after bombings

The Defense Ministry promises an investigation into the "security breaches" that allowed suicide bombers to penetrate one of the most closely guarded areas of the city. The death toll rises to 155.

October 27, 2009|Liz Sly

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government launched a massive security operation in Baghdad as Iraqis buried their dead Monday, a day after a pair of suicide attacks against government buildings killed dozens of people and exposed the fragility of Iraq's fledgling institutions.

The death toll increased to 155, including about 30 children, some of whom were killed in a bus that was taking them to kindergarten, Interior Ministry officials said. Hundreds more people were injured in the blasts, officials said.

Police erected extra checkpoints around the downtown area housing the Justice Ministry and the provincial government headquarters where the bombings took place, as the Defense Ministry promised an investigation into the "security breaches" that had allowed suicide bombers to penetrate one of the most closely guarded areas of the city.

In a statement posted on a militant website early today, the Al Qaeda-affiliated group the Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for the attacks, Reuters reported.

The bombings came at a time of heightened political friction over the drafting of a new election law, which is urgently needed if national balloting is to be held as planned in January.

Election officials have said that if there is no law this week, the elections may be delayed, which could in turn delay the expected withdrawal of U.S. troops.

A compromise proposal on a new law was reached Monday at a late-night meeting of top officials, including President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, legislators said. It is expected to be presented to parliamentary leaders today.

U.S. military officials said Monday that the Pentagon was committed to a drawdown plan that calls for reducing the current 117,000 troops in Iraq to 112,000 by the end of the year.

The pace of drawdowns is to speed up substantially after the 2010 elections. Many of the troops deployed in Iraq may eventually be needed in Afghanistan, officials said.

"We have said from the beginning there would be good days and bad days. This weekend we had a bad day," said Marine Corps Maj. Shawn Turner, a Pentagon spokesman. "But there is no indication we are shifting course in any way in regard to the drawdown."

U.S. advisors and Iraqi security forces conducted joint raids at several locations in west Baghdad in search of a man suspected of leading the network responsible for Sunday's bombings, as well as a pair of devastating attacks Aug. 19 against the Foreign and Finance ministries, the U.S. military said in a statement. Eight people were arrested, but it wasn't clear whether the man was among them.

U.S. officials had not previously indicated they had a suspect in the August bombings, for which the Islamic State of Iraq also claimed responsibility. The group includes the organization Al Qaeda in Iraq.

At the time of those bombings, Iraqi authorities trumpeted the capture of the alleged perpetrators and broadcast video of what they said was a confession by one of the ringleaders. But U.S. officials said privately that they didn't give much credence to the confession.

The fact that a similar attack was launched in the same area only a little over two months later is a major embarrassment for Maliki's government. He has built his reputation on his success in restoring law and order to Baghdad.

On the streets of the capital, several Iraqis said they held Maliki responsible for the bombings.

"First, I blame Maliki. He stands accused," said Haitham Mohammed, 26, a street vendor selling cigarettes and snacks along the Tigris River. "That area is close to the Green Zone and it should be fortified and safe. Maliki knows these things, but he doesn't do anything about it."

Funerals for some of those killed Sunday turned unruly along Haifa Street when mourners began chanting anti-government slogans, an Interior Ministry official said.

Twenty people were detained, but they were later released.

Iraqi officials said the latest bombings bore all the hallmarks of the Aug. 19 attacks. The first bomb, at the Justice Ministry, consisted of 2,200 pounds of explosives packed into a truck, and the second, outside Baghdad's provincial administration building, consisted of about 1,500 pounds, officials said.

According to Baghdad's provincial governor, Saleh Abdul Razzak, surveillance camera footage showed a white truck exploding in front of the ministry. It had been stolen from the water and sanitation department in Fallouja, once a stronghold of the Sunni Muslim insurgency in Iraq, he said.

Maliki's government has called for the creation of an international tribunal to investigate allegations that Syria is harboring militants from both Al Qaeda in Iraq and former President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party who are believed responsible for the attacks. Abbas Bayati, a member of Maliki's bloc in parliament, said a tribunal was now more important than ever.

"We don't want these terrorist attacks to be ammunition for political disputes," he said. "The Sunnis accuse Iran and the Shiites accuse Syria. This is not good. We should deal with facts."

Many ordinary Iraqis suspect rivalries between their political leaders are to blame, as Iraq heads toward the crucial elections.

But Sunni lawmaker Dhafir Ani said he believed an agreement on a new election law was near.

"The terrorist attacks [Sunday] gave us a strong impetus to reach an agreement," he said, "so that the terrorists will be denied the opportunity to take advantage of political disputes and create more chaos."

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liz.sly@latimes.com

Times staff writers Ned Parker and Usama Redha in Baghdad and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.

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