BAGHDAD — A suicide car bomb detonated outside the Iraqi 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.
At least 80 people were injured in the blast, according to an Interior Ministry official.
The blast added to unease about security in the capital after a series of explosions Monday that targeted three hotels favored by Western journalists, foreigners and government officials. Thirty-six people died in the explosions.
Tuesday's bombing took place near a checkpoint 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, said the Interior Ministry official, who asked not to identified by name because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters.
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.
The top U.S. general in Iraq said that while there was no definitive proof, he believed Monday's attacks were conducted by al Qaida in Iraq — an organization whose leaders appear to be increasingly well-educated and increasingly Iraqi, he said.
Army Gen. Raymond Odierno, the commander of U.S. Central Command, said that in the past several months, al Qaida 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.
Al Qaida 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.
The bombings also fueled anger over a widening scandal involving British-made explosive detection device that's widely used at Baghdad security checkpoints.
Last week, the British government stopped the export of the hand-held devices, which the U.S. military has determined to be "totally ineffective" and said the company that makes the devices was being investigated for fraud. The Iraqi government is thought to have paid more than $18,000 each for each of the devices under an $850 million contract. A BBC investigative report on Jan. 22 found that they were manufactured for about $250 each, using the same sensors found in anti-shoplifting devices.
Iraqis whose homes were torn by Tuesday's blast voiced frustration at the government.
"How can such explosives move about the city," said Basim Mohammad Ismail, a Ministry of Interior employee who was having breakfast with his family when the blast tore through his apartment. "They can because the detectors they are using are worthless. The government knows they are useless and the officials in the Ministry of the Interior know that, too." Picking up a piece of metal that had come flying through the window, he talked about the personal price of the bombing. "My 8-year-old daughter is in the hospital — her beautiful face is full of glass splinters — she might lose her eyesight," he said.
"It was just one second but it caused so much destruction and pain."
"The security agencies are a failure. The explosives detectors are a failure," said Raed Issam, whose niece and nephew also were 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 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. Sixteen people were killed by the Hamra blast.
"It's the first time we've seen it executed this way," Odierno said. "As time goes on, their ability to impact becomes less and less, so they are trying to get the biggest outcome." While the U.S. and Iraq had made great progress, they shouldn't 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 said.
Odierno said he thought that 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 U.S. 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.
(Arraf reports for the Christian Science Monitor. Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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