- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 19, 2009

UPDATED:

BAGHDAD (AP) — A truck bomb exploded across the street from Iraq’s Foreign Ministry near the Green Zone Wednesday, knocking out concrete slabs and windows and leaving a mass of charred cars outside as a wave of explosions around Baghdad killed at least 86 people.

It was the deadliest apparently coordinated attack in Iraq so far this year and marked a major challenge to Iraqi control of Baghdad. A steady escalation of attacks following the June 30 withdrawal of U.S. troops from urban areas has heightened fears that government troops are not ready to provide security.

Iraqi officials blamed al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents, echoing U.S. military warnings that the militant group is trying to provoke new bloodshed to undermine public trust in the Shiite-led Iraqi government.

“The terrorists are trying to rekindle the cycle of violence of previous years by creating an atmosphere of tension among the Iraqi people,” Iraqi President Jalal Talabani said in a statement. “Our security forces must be more alert and firm. Also, the political groups must unite.”

Sunni and Shiite extremists remain active in Iraq and the U.S. military has detected some political violence ahead of next year’s national elections. But truck bombs and suicide attacks bear the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq.

The most devastating strike blackened the facade of the Foreign Ministry, killing at least 95 people and wounding 407, according to police and hospital officials. Rescue workers dug through rubble and debris near the ministry, which is adjacent to the Green Zone, the most heavily protected part of the capital.

The explosives-laden truck was parked in a largely unguarded parking lot across the street but the force of the blast tore through the 10-story building, which itself is surrounded by a concrete blast wall, as well as nearby apartment blocs.

Dozens of cars were charred and plumes of smoke rose into the sky.

A recent rise in bombings has dealt a blow to Iraqi government efforts to restore a sense of normalcy in the capital as the overall level of violence remains low compared with recent years. Iraqi security forces have begun removing concrete blast walls, which have been credited with helping reducing violence. The walls have been coming down in residential and commercial areas with the aim of improving appearance and easing traffic congestion.

The midmorning attacks hit first near the Finance Ministry in northern Baghdad and then minutes later near the Foreign Ministry. Around the same time as the explosion near the Foreign Ministry, mortars struck inside the Green Zone. It was not immediately known what damage the mortars caused or whether there were causalities.

Another car bomb targeted a joint Iraqi police and army patrol just outside the Finance Ministry, killing at least 19 people and wounding 22, a police official said. Twenty-two were wounded, said the official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity.

Another blast in the commercial area of western Baghdad’s Baiyaa district killed two people and wounded 16, while a bombing in the commercial district of Bab al-Muadham killed six people and wounded 24, authorities said.

An Interior Ministry official, speaking separately, put the death toll at 88. Conflicting casualty tolls are common in the chaotic aftermath of bombings in Iraq. The officials all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said Monday that he wanted to deploy U.S. soldiers alongside Iraqi and Kurdish troops in northern Iraq where some of the worst attacks in recent weeks have been carried out.

U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq’s cities on June 30 under a security pact that outlines the American withdrawal by the end of 2011. President Barack Obama has ordered all U.S. combat troops out of Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, leaving a contingency of up to 50,000 U.S. troops in training and advising roles.

Odierno said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been receptive to the idea, though has not approved it.

Associated Press Writers Hamid Ahmed and Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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