BAGHDAD — Strangers who'd rented empty apartments or office space in several residential buildings in recent weeks were blamed Tuesday for at least seven explosions that ripped through the complexes one after another as residents were leaving for work.
Neighbors reported that they never saw moving trucks or any other sign of the new tenants, and Iraqi authorities said they thought that the renters had packed the vacant spaces with explosives, which they detonated during the morning rush hour in a coordinated militant operation that was chilling in its sophistication and planning.
At least 35 people were killed and another 140 were wounded. The toll could have been higher: Iraqi forces disabled two additional bombs after they swept through other apartment buildings in the Chkook, Shoala and Amil neighborhoods, according to the Baghdad Operations Center, the capital's central security authority.
"After the first explosions, the center received information of apartments that were rented and then deserted," the Baghdad Operations Center's Web site said.
Iraqi TV channels showed flattened buildings where rescue workers were still digging people from wreckage hours after the blasts _ dramatic images that continued a particularly bloody week of execution-style murders, embassy bombings and other violence. More than 100 people have been killed in the violence in the last five days. More than 360 people have been wounded.
There was no sign, however, that U.S. military commanders were rethinking their previous insistence that the full withdrawal of American forces is still on track for the end of next year.
U.S. and Iraqi officials quickly blamed al Qaida in Iraq for the attacks, which they said bore the hallmarks of the mostly homegrown Sunni Muslim extremist group: mass casualties, civilian targets and multiple coordinated explosions.
Residents who live near the blast sites, however, said they believe the recent violence is a result of the post-election political wrangling that could turn even uglier if warring politicians dont act quickly to build a new government that reflects the results of the March 7 polls.
"Right after the explosion, my first thoughts were, 'Why is Iraqi blood being used as a means of political pressure?' Those innocent people were working for their families, and the politicians are using us for their political interests," said Kadhim Hameed, 40, who escaped with slight injuries after running from a huge fireball outside an apartment explosion in the Amil neighborhood. "I'm sure the situation will get even worse. We can feel it from the statements from the politicians on TV."
The story was the same in at least three of the bombed residential complexes: Residents said that unknown renters had leased space in the two-story buildings and never moved in. The targeted areas are heavily populated by Shiite Muslims; some blocks had seen fierce sectarian cleansing of Sunnis who used to live in the neighborhoods.
A 40-year-old man who gave his name as Ali Abu Fatima said the blast near his building in the Amil neighborhood jolted him from the breakfast table with a boom so loud "it felt like the explosion was inside my home." He ventured out a few minutes later and, through a cloud of dust and smoke, saw that the target was a mixed residential-office building with doctors' clinics upstairs and bakeries on the ground floor.
"I found out later that a man came and rented one of the rooms on the upper floor but never showed up," he said.
After making sure his cousins in the area were fine, Abu Fatima watched rescue workers pass an oxygen tank and mask to a man whose lower body was pinned under rubble. "We could see his face. He was crying," Abu Fatima said. "Thank God we have concrete blast walls in that area, because they saved the lives of hundreds of people. The explosion took place at the height of rush hour, and the market was filled with women and children."
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq