BAGHDAD — Bombings at three of Baghdad's most popular hotels killed more than 30 people on Monday in what appeared to be the latest round of coordinated attacks aimed at destabilizing the Iraqi government.
The bombings came on the day Iraq's government announced that it had executed Ali Hassin al Majid, known as Chemical Ali, who had received four death sentences for his campaigns against Iraqi Kurds and Shiites during Saddam Hussein’s regime.
One of the attacks, an apparent suicide car bomb, took place inside the compound surrounding a hotel where many Western journalists are based.
Witnesses said gunmen on the main road outside the Hamra hotel began firing at security guards manning the checkpoint leading to the hotel compound and then drove a pickup packed with explosives past the security barrier.
Security guards manning the checkpoint shot the driver dead just before the truck detonated on the street directly outside the hotel.
"I saw a man who started shooting fire at the guards and then I heard them shoot back and then the explosion happened,” says Dhia al Nouri, who owns a water treatment shop near the security checkpoint.
The attacks were the latest in a series aimed at government ministries and other high-profile targets that the Iraqi government blames on Al Qaeda in Iraq extremists with ties to the banned Baath party of Saddam Hussein.
Iraqis in the street though widely believe the attacks are tied to parliamentary elections scheduled for March – an attempt by political parties to destabilize ruling parties and gain votes.
The coordinated bombings against government ministries in August, October and December killed hundreds of Iraqis and raised fears that violence could rise again ahead of the elections.
A huge crater on the corner near the Hamra was left where the car bomb detonated. American and Iraqi military explosives experts examined pieces of the wreckage.
The streets surrounding the hotel were littered with charred and twisted metal and shattered glass. Some of the hotel occupants — the shock still on their faces — wandered out with bloodstained bandages — another with his arm in a sling.
An Iraqi government spokesman said seven people had been killed in the three bombings but other government officials speaking on condition of anonymity said the death toll was at least 31. The spokesman said at least two of the three vehicle bombs were suicide car bombs.
Some of the Iraqi residents of homes near the Hamra stood in the rubble of their damaged houses. Others – their faces grim - walked in the street covered in debris.
“If anyone else tries to take pictures of my house I’ll kill them,” one distraught Iraqi shouted at a photographer.
The compound also includes two smaller hotels recently renovated by their owners in the relative calm over the past year. On Monday, workers at those badly damaged hotels tried to sweep up broken glass and repair shattered windows and doors.
A truck bomb targeting the same hotel partially destroyed it five years ago, killing several neighborhood residents.
Monday’s two other bombings appeared aimed at the high-rise Ishtar hotel, a former Sheraton hotel, and the Babylon hotel, not far from the Hamra. The former Sheraton is in the same compound as the Palestine hotel, a base for Western journalists at the outbreak of the war. That bomb detonated outside the concrete blast walls protecting the hotel.
McClatchy special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report from Baghdad. McClatchy and the Christian Science Monitor operate a combined bureau in Baghdad.