BAGHDAD, Iraq—A mid-afternoon bombing Thursday in the cafeteria of Iraq's parliament offered the deadliest evidence yet that the fortress-like Green Zone—long thought to be Baghdad's most secure section—has become less safe in recent weeks.
Two months into a new U.S.-Iraqi security crackdown in the capital, assassination attempts, mortar and rocket attacks and other security breaches are frequent in and around the Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy, thousands of American troops and major Iraqi government buildings.
"This shouldn't happen, but the security plan cannot stop such violations," said Ridha Jawa Taqi, a legislator from the main Shiite political party, the United Iraqi Alliance. "We all know there have been serious incidents."
Details of Thursday's attack, which struck just after lunchtime while the cafeteria was crowded with legislators and their staffs, were still sketchy. Iraqi lawmakers said at least three people, including one parliament member, were killed in the blast. U.S. military spokesman Major Gen. William Caldwell said eight people had died. At least 23 people were wounded, the Iraqi Interior Ministry and Caldwell said.
It isn't known whether the bomb had been planted in the second-floor cafeteria or was carried there by a suicide attacker. Several witnesses said they saw severed body parts at the scene of the attack, suggesting that a suicide bomber had been blown apart.
For the Iraqi government, which is trying to persuade residents, insurgent groups and U.S. officials that it can get a grip on the violence, the attack underscored the vulnerability of even its most heavily fortified area—a four-square-mile zone ringed by checkpoints, concrete walls and concertina wire, and guarded by Iraqi security forces, coalition troops and private security contractors.
Thousands of people—from janitors to high-level officials and their large security details—pass through the checkpoints each day, and several Iraqi officials speculated that the attack was carried out by someone with regular access to the Green Zone.
Last month, the deputy prime minister, Salam al-Zobaie, a Sunni Muslim, was wounded in a suicide bombing in a prayer hall. The hall was adjacent to his home in a heavily guarded district just outside the Green Zone where many government officials live. Many lawmakers speculated that the attacker was one of Zobaie's bodyguards, a charge that he denied.
A day earlier, a rocket landed inside the perimeter, less than 100 yards from where U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon was holding a news conference, although no one was hurt. The following week, two Americans—a soldier and a government contractor—were killed in another rocket attack. Days later, coalition forces discovered two unexploded suicide vests next to a Dumpster.
The incidents prompted U.S. officials to impose new security measures, requiring embassy personnel to wear protective body armor when outdoors inside the embassy complex and restricting access for outside visitors.
"Certainly, all of us know this is what the war is about," U.S. Embassy spokesman Lou Fintor said Thursday. "Iraq is a dangerous place."
Speaking at the White House, President Bush condemned Thursday's attack on "a symbol of democracy."
"There is a type of person that would walk in that building and kill innocent life," he said. "That is the same type of person that is willing to come and kill innocent Americans."
Late Thursday, Iraq's national security adviser, Mowafaq al-Rubaie, told Iraqi television that three suspects had been arrested. He didn't elaborate.
No group immediately claimed responsibility. Mithal al-Alusi, a secular Sunni legislator who'd left the cafeteria moments before the attack, said intelligence information before the bombing had warned of a strike by al-Qaida in Iraq, a Sunni group known to use suicide-bombing vests.
Legislators have long worried about the security of the parliament. Six weeks ago, security forces searched the building from top to bottom but turned up only a few weapons.
"It's not that safe," Alusi said of the Green Zone. "There are many entrances, and thousands of people have the permits to come in."
Some legislators speculated that the explosive device could have been smuggled into the convention center—where the parliament is housed—hidden in food destined for the cafeteria.
The convention center isn't as heavily secured as some other parts of the Green Zone, such as the U.S. Embassy. Still, pedestrians must carry two forms of identification and are frisked at four checkpoints, including one with a full-body electronic scanning machine.
The security procedures were revamped following the last bombing inside the Green Zone—an assassination attempt in November on the parliament speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani. A bomb planted under a car at the rear of his motorcade exploded as it was driving into the convention center parking lot, but no one was killed.
"I'm 100 percent sure it was an inside job," Brig. Gen. Abdulkarim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said of Thursday's attack. "Even I as a brigadier general cannot get inside the Green Zone without passing through heavy security procedures."
Thirty to 40 Sunni and Shiite parliament members were in the room, witnesses said, when the blast occurred at around 2 p.m. The cafeteria is a few yards away from the main parliamentary chamber, where lawmakers had just concluded a regular session.
"We heard a very big sound of an explosion and the whole room got very dark because of the thick smoke," said Ali Alyas, a journalist with the Al-Hurra television station, who was in an adjacent room.
The dead lawmaker was identified by colleagues as Mohammed Awad, a member of the Sunni National Dialogue Front political party. An undisclosed number of wounded were taken to the U.S.-run Ibn Sina hospital inside the Green Zone.
Within an hour of the blast, security forces blocked access to the area. Reporters for McClatchy Newspapers saw two ambulances and a fire truck arriving at the scene while helicopter gunships circled low overhead.
Mashhadani, the parliament speaker, called for a special legislative session on Friday, the Muslim day of prayer, as a show of defiance.
Earlier Thursday, in a separate attack, a truck bomb exploded on al-Sarafiyah bridge, a British-built landmark spanning the Tigris River. Ten people were believed dead and 30 injured in the explosion, which collapsed the steel structure and sent several cars tumbling into the water.
A roundup of violent incidents in Iraq is posted every afternoon at www.mcclatchydc.com. Click on Iraq war coverage.
(Leila Fadel and special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.