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October 26, 2009

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Baghdad carnage: At least 136 die as suicide bombers strike

TWO suicide car bombs exploded in downtown Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 136 people and delivering a powerful blow to the heart of the fragile city's government in the worst attack of the year.

While violence has dropped in Iraq since the height of the sectarian tension, such bombings like yesterday's demonstrate the precarious nature of the security gains and the insurgency's abilities to still pull off devastating attacks in the center of what is supposed to be one of Baghdad's most secure areas.

Black smoke could be seen billowing from the frantic scene, as emergency service vehicles sped to the area. Even civilian cars were being commandeered to transport the wounded to hospitals.

"The walls collapsed and we had to run out," said Yasmeen Afdhal, 24, an employee of the Baghdad provincial administration, targeted by one of the car bombs.

"There are many wounded, and I saw them being taken away. They were pulling victims out of the rubble and rushing them to ambulances."

The car bombs, which targeted the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad provincial administration, come as Iraq is preparing for elections scheduled in January, and many Iraqi officials have warned that violence by insurgents intent on destabilizing the country could rise.

There have been no claims of responsibility, but massive car bombs have been the hallmark of Sunni insurgents seeking to overthrow the Shiite-dominated government.

At least 25 staff members of the Baghdad Provincial Council, which runs the city, were killed in the bombing, said council member Mohammed al-Rubaiey.

The area where the blasts occurred is just a few hundred meters from the Green Zone that houses the United States Embassy as well as the prime minister's offices.

The Chinese Embassy, just 50 meters from the blast site, had a miraculous escape.

Although windows and doors were severely damaged only two people in the embassy, both Chinese chefs, were slightly injured.

The street where the blasts occurred had just been reopened to vehicle traffic a few months ago, in what was supposed to be a sign that safety was returning to the city.

The devastating attacks occurred just hours before Iraq's top leadership was scheduled to meet with heads of political parties and reach a compromise on the disputed election law ahead of January's crucial parliamentary vote.

The explosive-laden vehicles were sitting in garages next to the two government buildings, police said.

"They are targeting the government and the political process in the country," Major General Qassim al-Mousawi, spokesman for the city's operations command center, told The Associated Press.

He said the blasts were the work of suicide bombers who drove the vehicles into the parking lots.

The blasts, which surpassed coordinated attacks against two government ministries in August that killed more than 100 people, appeared to be a blow to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who has staked his reputation and re-election hopes on returning security to the country.

Al-Maliki toured the blast sites later in the day.

Yesterday's explosions also injured nearly 600 people who were taken to six area hospitals. Medical officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, gave the death toll.

Video images captured on a cell phone showed the second blast going off in a massive ball of flames, followed by a burst of machine gun fire.

Three American security contractors, working for the US Embassy in Baghdad, were injured in the blasts, but no American embassy personnel were killed, said Philip Frayne, an embassy spokesman.

Frayne could not provide the nature of their injuries.


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