BAGHDAD — A series of explosions ripped through Iraq’s capital today, in an ominous turn for a country already reeling from a deepening political and sectarian crisis that erupted after the departure of the US military. It was Baghdad’s deadliest day in more than a year.
The attacks began at 6:30 a.m. and transformed the morning commute into a bloodbath. Car bombs and improvised explosives destroyed schools, markets and apartments. An ambulance packed with explosives incinerated a government office. At least 63 people were killed and 185 wounded.
Last night, four more blasts shook Baghdad, killing three more people.
There were fears that the precipitous withdrawal of U.S. troops might lead to instability in Iraq, but the speed with which conditions have deteriorated has alarmed Western officials. Until yesterday, however, the bitter fighting between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, and his political foes in Parliament had not been accompanied by a rise in violence.
But with this round of bombings, the political turmoil seemed to spill into the streets, where a still potent insurgency, in abeyance for some time, remains capable of mounting attacks that can undermine the fragile government and pit Sunnis against Shi'ites.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks yesterday, but they appeared similar to others conducted by the largely homegrown Sunni insurgent group, Al Qaeda in Iraq.
‘’This has nothing to do with the American withdrawal,’’ said Abdul Kareem Thirib, the head of the security committee for Baghdad’s provincial council. ‘‘When they were here, there were also explosions. We were the ones in control of the streets when the Americans were here. I think there will be more cowardly attacks in the coming days but we will face them and everything will be under control.’’
Families lingering in hospital rooms blamed the political elite for bickering while civilians were dying. Near the scene of the deadliest bombing, a woman hobbled to the hospital on bloodied legs. When a man assisting her urged her into an ambulance, she said, ‘‘I don’t want anything from the government.’’
A day earlier, Maliki added new tensions to the political climate by threatening to discard Iraq’s fragile power-sharing government. He has never liked the U.S.-backed arrangement, which yokes Iraq’s Sunnis, Shi'ites, and Kurds into one awkward partnership, but simply abandoning the idea could bring new howls of anger from Iraq’s Sunni minority and create more instability.
Maliki’s Shi'ite-led government ignited a firestorm this week when it accused the Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, of running a death squad. Although Iraqi officials have amassed what has been described as a strong case tying Hashimi’s bodyguards to a string of assassinations, there is scant evidence against Hashimi beyond the bodyguards’ confessions. Hashimi has dismissed those as coerced.
The Kurdish regional government in Iraq’s semi-autonomous north offered no sign yesterday that it would heed Maliki’s demand that they surrender Hashimi, who fled there several days ago. Hashimi, who has denied the government’s allegations, has refused to return to Baghdad, saying he cannot receive a fair trial there.
U.S. officials were scrambling to defuse what has become an embarrassing and potentially destabilizing standoff. The U.S. ambassador rushed back to Baghdad after leaving before the holidays, and Vice President Joe Biden spoke yesterday with Iraq’s president, Jalal Talabani, urging a dialogue to resolve the crisis.
Yesterday, the Sunni Arab speaker of Parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, urged the leaders of Iraq’s political factions to attend an emergency meeting this afternoon. But no one has taken up the offer yet, and it was unclear who if anyone would show up.
The political tensions even colored how Iraq’s leaders responded to yesterday’s attacks.
Maliki strongly defended his security policies and political maneuvers, saying in a statement that the bombers ‘‘will not be able to change the course of the events and the political process.’’ One of his main rivals, former prime minister Ayad Allawi, said in a Twitter message that ‘‘we hold the government responsible for this security failure and the escalation toward violence.’’
The carnage, however, was blind to Iraq’s sectarian divisions. Car bombs and improvised explosives cut through both Sunni and Shi'ite areas, as well as mixed commercial neighborhoods, where new businesses and rebuilt shops have flowered in recent years.
In the day’s single deadliest attack, an ambulance packed with explosives slipped past police checkpoints and security barriers and exploded just outside the offices of the government’s Integrity Committee. Some 23 people were killed, and witnesses said that more were still buried in heaps of charred concrete.
Medics and volunteers did not have enough stretchers for the wounded and dead, so they slung bleeding bodies into blankets. Nearby apartment buildings were ripped apart and store windows were shattered 10 blocks from the blast site.
A woman who had been searching for her son in the rubble of one blast learned of his death at the Ibn al-Nafiz hospital. ‘‘My God, my God,’’ she screamed, running out of the emergency room.