BAGHDAD — At least five car bombs ripped through neighborhoods across Baghdad on Tuesday morning, killing 127 Iraqis and prompting urgent questions about Iraq's security forces just as the country gears up for national elections on March 7.
The blasts marked the third major strike on government sites since August and brought uncomfortable questions for Iraqi leaders. These include signs al-Qaida in Iraq is regrouping and concerns over the readiness of Iraqi forces to handle security alone as U.S. forces depart.
The bombs detonated — three of them in quick succession — in widely scattered parts of the city, rattling buildings far from the scene and sending towers of smoke into the sky. Suicide bombers set off three of the five, the Interior Ministry said. Along with the dead, the preliminary toll was 513 wounded.
The Baghdad security command, which reports to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, provided a lower death toll, saying that 77 people died in the explosions. Two of four statements it issued about the bombings lambasted media coverage. It described journalists with one Western agency as "liars" and said it would sue an Iraqi television station for "defamation, abuse and incitement to violence."
Officials in the government blamed the insurgent group al-Qaida in Iraq for Tuesday's carnage, the latest in a campaign of powerful bombings apparently designed to undermine the Shiite-led government, which insurgents deride as a byproduct of the U.S. occupation.
Al-Qaida in Iraq has little support among residents, but the anger and sense of impotence apparent here Tuesday suggested that the insurgents have succeeded in portraying the government as feeble and incompetent.
"Everyone knows that the interior minister doesn't speak to the prime minister because of political problems," Shiite lawmaker Nasar al-Rubaie said during a televised parliamentary session in which lawmakers chastised security commanders and key ministers. Maliki and Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani lead slates vying for seats in the forthcoming parliamentary elections.
U.S. military commanders and Iraqi officials have warned of increased violence in the run-up to the national elections. Iraq's presidency council on Tuesday set March 7 as the date for the elections, two days after lawmakers approved an elections law following months of delay.
U.S. Ambassador Christopher Hill said the string of bombings "shows there's continued security challenges," despite November having been the least violent month in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Hill said it was unlikely the bombings were a response to Parliament's vote Sunday to approve the national elections, since terrorist attacks generally take longer than a few days to plan.
U.S. military forces, who left Iraq's cities at the end of June, were more visible than usual Tuesday in parts of Baghdad, and security was tightened around the Green Zone.
The U.S. military said in a statement that it was providing security to help the Iraqi military and police, as well as assistance with explosives disposal, intelligence and reconnaissance.
In one of the attacks Tuesday, at the federal appeals court in Mansour in west Baghdad, a suicide bomber drove his car through a barrier and ran over a law school graduate who had shown up for a job interview, witnesses said.
A guard shot at the car but failed to stop it, and the driver detonated his bomb beside the courthouse, severely damaging the building.
Appeals court guard Mohamed Hussein said he was putting files into lockers when "a huge bombing shook the building and threw me against the wall."
"My colleagues and I were fine, but as I ran out of the room and outside the building I saw the female employees and other men injured and running, not knowing where to run. We carried our general director and other employees to the hospital," Hussein said.
The first of the bombs was detonated at a technical college, killing 15 people and wounding 23. Another blast, near Iraq's judicial institute, collapsed a highway underpass in northeast Baghdad.
Maliki blamed sympathizers of the late dictator Saddam Hussein's Baath Party for the past two major strikes on Iraqi government sites, in August and October, that took more than 255 lives. The government says it has evidence the bombers received help from Syria.
No independent evidence has emerged to support a possible resurgence of the militant Baath Party cells. Instead, the government allegations are seen as attempts to deflect suspicions that al-Qaida and its insurgent allies could be regrouping before the March elections and the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces at the end of August.
Information from the Associated Press, McClatchy Newspapers and the Washington Post was used in this report.