As the Obama administration weighed sending more troops to Afghanistan, the worst terrorist attack in two years rocked Baghdad — a grim reminder that the insurgency thought to be largely defeated in 2007 and 2008 is still capable of spectacular bloodshed.
Two powerful suicide car bombs detonated in front of Iraq’s Justice Ministry and other government buildings midday Sunday, killing at least 155 people, according to Associated Press.
The dead included 35 employees at the Ministry of Justice and at least 25 staff members of the Baghdad Provincial Council, officials told the AP. More than 700 others were wounded, including three American contractors.
The attacks undercut optimistic comments that Iraq’s Sunni insurgency has been fully defeated by an alliance of the U.S. and Iraqi military and a federation of Sunni sheiks known as the Awakening.
The bombings also may have been timed to humiliate Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who returned this weekend from a trip to Washington, where he participated in a conference aimed at bolstering international investment in Iraq.
Mr. al-Maliki is running for re-election next year and is basing his campaign in part on the claim that Iraqi security has significantly improved on his watch, despite the withdrawal of thousands of U.S. troops.
The AP reported that the street where the bombings occurred had been reopened to vehicular traffic recently, and blast walls had been repositioned to let cars get closer to the government buildings.
A retired Iraqi general, Najim Abed al-Jabouri, told The Washington Times that the bombings “are largely an attempt to weaken politically the Maliki administration, which has been using security as a trump card for the upcoming national elections.”
Mr. al-Jabouri, a senior fellow at the Near East South Asia Center at the National Defense University in Washington, wrote a paper earlier this year warning that Iraq’s security services are becoming more loyal to ethnic factions than to the state.
“The director of Iraqi national intelligence, a Sunni, was forced into retirement a couple of months ago,” Mr. al-Jabouri said. “The director of military intelligence, a Kurdish appointee, was dismissed last week. Weak leadership and cooperation within the Iraqi intelligence community decrease the security forces’ ability to prevent such attacks.
“In spite of the tremendous overall improvement of the the Iraqi police and army in the last two years, they are still patronized by divisive ethnic and sectarian political parties,” Mr. al-Jabouri said. “The election season creates an environment where dividing lines within the security forces are exploited for political purposes.”
Kenneth Katzman, an Iraq specialist for the Congressional Research Service in Washington, said “it is possible that substantial numbers of [insurgents] have infiltrated Baghdad. It shows the insurgents are in Baghdad and can attack at will.”
The blasts were the most lethal to hit Iraq’s capital since April 2007, when a series of car bombs killed 187 people in Shi’ite neighborhoods. On Aug. 19, coordinated car bombs exploded in front of Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, killing nearly 100 people.
Fred Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who helped draft the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy for Iraq, said there continue to be safe havens for al Qaeda in Iraq, but said the terrorist group does not control the large swaths of territory it did before 2007.
“There are active terrorist groups in Iraq. They are certainly continuing to do everything in their power to return to their position of strength; their mechanism for doing that is conducting spectacular attacks,” he said.
“They are going to get through every now and again, inevitably, and sometimes it is going to be awful. The two things really to look at to see how significant the effects are is whether you have reprisal attacks, Shi’ite versus Sunni. And what kind of tempo of attack the terrorists will keep up.”
U.S. combat forces left Iraqi cities on June 30 under the terms of a status of forces agreement signed with the administration of President George W. Bush.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a chief political advocate for the Iraqi surge — and for one in Afghanistan — said the bombings would not affect the timetable for a complete withdrawal of U.S. combat forces, scheduled for the end of 2011.
“The Iraqi military will be able to handle this transition,” Mr. McCain said on “Face the Nation” on CBS. “But it’s not going to be without tragedies such as we’ve seen just today.”
One analyst said the pace of U.S. withdrawal could be altered, depending on how long Iraq’s political leaders take to form a new government.
“It is becoming increasingly possible that the elections will be delayed. There is also a likelihood that it will take Iraqis more time to form a new government,” Mr. Kagan said. “The drawdown timetable is predicated on the assumption of how likely they will be to do that.”
Mr. Katzman said, however, “I do not think it will complicate U.S. withdrawal plans, because the assessment is that this is an Iraqi problem, and that the Iraqi forces have been trained up to deal with it.”
President Obama spoke with Mr. al-Maliki and Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, after the bombings.
In a statement, Mr. Obama said, “These bombings serve no purpose other than the murder of innocent men, women and children, and they only reveal the hateful and destructive agenda of those who would deny the Iraqi people the future that they deserve.”
Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, a spokesman for Baghdad’s operations command center, told the AP that an initial investigation suggested that .the vehicles, each loaded down with more than 1,500 pounds of explosives, might have passed through some security checkpoints before arriving at their destination.
U.S. troops were called in at the request of the Iraqi government to help secure the area, deal with any explosive material and offer forensics personnel to assist in the investigation, a military spokesman, Maj. Dave Shoupe, told the AP.