BAGHDAD — A pair of car bombs that exploded within minutes of each other Tuesday in southern Iraq raised new questions about security in the country weeks before Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is scheduled to decide whether to ask U.S. troops to stay past their year-end pullout date.
The bombings, which killed 25 people and wounded at least 37, struck the city of Diwaniyah, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, an area that's been largely immune from similar attacks for more than three years.
No group claimed responsibility, but suspicion immediately fell on al Qaida in Iraq, the Sunni Muslim group that's thought to be responsible for recent deadly attacks on provincial government offices north of Baghdad.
The attack holds the hallmark of al Qaida," said Eskander Witwit, the deputy chairman of the Security and Defense Committee in parliament. "It is the same tactic they adopted in Salahudin and Diyala," he said, referring to two other provinces. "One explosion to attract attention and then a second big explosion."
With the decision looming on the U.S. troop presence, Witwit said the bombings were an al Qaida challenge to the Iraqi government.
They want to tell the Iraqi government and Iraqi security forces that they are able to attack anywhere and anytime they decide, he said.
The last U.S. troops in Iraq are scheduled to leave Dec. 31 under an agreement between the countries signed during the administration of President George W. Bush. But U.S. officials have said they'd be willing to consider leaving some troops behind if the Iraqi government asked them to, and Maliki has said he'll decide before the end of July whether to do so.
Police said the explosions targeted the heavily fortified Sawb al Sagheer area of downtown Diwaniyah, where the provincial governor lives and many government buildings are located.
The first explosion, which came at around 7 a.m., caused relatively few casualties. The second, which was far more powerful, struck minutes later, after security forces, rescue crews and onlookers had gathered.
Most of the dead were Iraqi police officers and soldiers. A local TV reporter also was killed.
A woman who lives a few blocks away heard both explosions and said it was obvious that they were vastly different blasts.
After the first explosion, she said, "I felt my house shaking. I went out and I saw a white cloud" rising nearby. Then came the second blast. "The cloud was black this time and the sound of the ambulances filled the place, she said.
Ahmed al Khudiri, a lawmaker from Diwaniyah and a member of the United Iraqi Alliance opposition party, suggested that after so many years of relative peace, security forces may have let down their guard.
It's really a very sad day for Diwaniyah," he said. "I hope the security forces will learn the lesson and start working harder to keep the city safe.
The attack was the third major assault on Iraqi provincial government offices so far this month. Twenty people were killed and more than 60 wounded in an attack June 3 on the headquarters of the Salahudin provincial government in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. Eight people died and 27 were wounded last week in an attack on the Diyala provincial council.
Bombings also struck other parts of Iraq on Tuesday. Two civilians were killed and seven people were wounded, including an Iraqi soldier, in two separate explosions in Baghdad, while two car bombs detonated near liquor stores in east Baghdad, causing heavy damage but no casualties. In Musayeb, a city in Babil province south of Baghdad, two people were killed and eight wounded when a bomb detonated inside a cafe.
Police defused two car bombs in Ramadi, the capital city of Anbar province, west of Baghdad.
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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