3 coordinated bomb attacks hit hotels in Baghdad

Monday, January 25, 2010 - 1:00pm

BAGHDAD — In a coordinated attack as devastating as it was ruthlessly efficient, three bombs unleashed minutes apart on Monday wrecked landmark hotels in Baghdad, undermining faith in Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and underscoring the precarious uncertainty of the political landscape weeks before parliamentary elections.

The bombings, cutting through snarled traffic at the afternoon rush hour, seemed to be the latest chapter in a strategy that began in August and that has hewn to a relentlessly political logic. With similar attacks in August, October and December, insurgents have sought to wreck pillars of Baghdad’s government and civic life, proving that Mr. Maliki’s government and the security forces that he often hails are unable to preserve the state’s authority.

In streets strewn with broken glass, where the scent of shorn eucalyptus trees mixed with the stench of charred flesh, some survivors rued a sense of the inevitable. In past attacks, the blasts have thundered across the capital, followed by weeks of relative calm broken by another series.

“We were expecting more,” said Abbas Salman, gazing at a street where rescue workers carried severed legs and arms through crowds of stunned onlookers.

The Ministry of Interior said that 36 people had been killed and 71 wounded. While the death toll paled before earlier attacks — at least 122 in August and 155 in October — they seemed to signal a new target. So far, the campaign has wrecked four government ministries, a provincial headquarters, a courthouse, colleges and a bank.

The three bombs exploded roughly 10 minutes apart. The first struck the Ishtar Sheraton at 3:28 p.m., followed three minutes later by another at the Babylon Hotel and then, at 3:37, one at the Hamra Hotel. Both the Hamra and the Sheraton are home to many of the capital’s foreign press corps, though none were reported killed.

The blasts shook the city and shattered windows for miles around. In neighborhoods near the hotels, residents spilled into the streets wailing, as plumes of dust, smoke and debris wafted across the skyline. Staccato bursts of gunfire echoed through the streets, as security forces tried to cordon off the bombing scenes.

“By God, move!” one guard shouted. “Are you staring at people’s disasters?”

Residents often answered with their own anger, in a striking sign of the lack of respect the security forces, particularly the police, are often shown in the capital.

“How are they still getting through?” one survivor shouted at an officer.

“We have the right to complain!” another insisted.

Many blamed the attacks on security forces, whose checkpoints punctuate virtually every street, intersection and bridge in Baghdad. Nearly all of them deploy a bomb-detecting devise that Britain has banned for export on grounds that it is useless.

The bombers had to pass through security checkpoints at all three hotels. At the Hamra, a day laborer who gave his name as Abu Haider said he saw a car exchange gunshots at the checkpoint, then watched a second car speed through.

“It was just seconds before the explosion,” he said.

The bomb left a crater roughly 12 feet wide and 6 feet deep about 50 feet from the Hamra. It reduced the house in front of the hotel to rubble, from which rescue workers pulled bodies. A woman who gave her name as Um Riyadh emerged from the ruined hulk of a house across the street, blood on her head and face.

“We lost the house,” she said, crying. “We lost everything. Why should I stay in Iraq? I’m going to leave. There’s no other solution.”

Two weeks before Monday’s attacks, Iraqi security forces, aided by intelligence from Americans, said they had foiled another large assault on the city, capturing hundreds of pounds of explosives and putting the city temporarily on lockdown.

Iraqi officials blamed the earlier attacks on Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the homegrown terrorist group that Iraqi and American officials believe has foreign leadership, acting jointly with former members of Saddam Hussein’s Baath party. But no evidence has been produced of such a collaboration.