Two synchronized suicide car bombings struck Sunday at the heart of the Iraqi government for the second time in two months, severely damaging the Justice Ministry and Provincial Council complexes in Baghdad, killing at least 147 people and raising questions about the government's ability to secure its most vital operations.
The bombers apparently passed through multiple security checkpoints before detonating their vehicles within a minute of each other, leaving the dead and more than 520 wounded strewn across crowded downtown streets.
With an attack Aug. 19 that killed about 100 people, insurgents have now wrecked an array of pillars of the state's authority: the Foreign, Finance, Justice, and Municipalities and Public Works ministries, along with the Baghdad provincial headquarters, which are all gathered in a fortified swath of downtown.
For months, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is seeking another term as Iraq prepares to hold national elections in January, has painstakingly tried to present Iraq as having turned a corner on the violence that threatened to tear the country apart in 2006 and 2007.
He recently ordered blast walls removed from dozens of streets in the capital and has insisted that Iraqi forces were capable of securing the country as American troops prepare to withdraw entirely by the end of 2011. In large part, his popularity has rested on the belief that he has kept the country reasonably safe.
But the wave of bombings has led some Iraqis to say Sunday that they were reconsidering their support for Maliki.
"Why should I vote for Maliki?" asked Ali Hussein, 32. "He has done nothing except bring explosions and corruption."
Wihda al-Jumaili, a Baghdad Provincial Council member opposed to Maliki's faction, said, "It is a clear message to Maliki's government that it cannot control the situation."
President Barack Obama spoke Sunday with Maliki by telephone to offer condolences, White House officials said. And in a statement, Obama condemned the attacks as hateful and destructive.
American Marines were seen walking around the debris-filled streets after the attack. One Marine said the Americans had been asked by the Iraqi government to aid in the investigation.
In a rare personal appearance at a bombing site, Maliki arrived at the Provincial Council Building about an hour after the explosion, his face ashen as he surveyed the carnage.
Around Maliki, paramedics carried the wounded to Red Crescent ambulances, workers wearing plastic gloves scooped body parts into plastic bags, and rescue teams pried open scorched cars in a desperate search for signs of life.
Surrounding streets had been blocked off and were under more than a foot of water because the blast had apparently damaged a water main. Pools of water were red with blood. Maliki did not venture far from his armored white sport utility vehicle.
Maliki later issued a statement calling the attacks "cowardly" and blamed elements of the Baath Party and the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaida in Mesopotamia. He said the attack would not affect the scheduled elections.
In the wake of earlier attacks, Maliki's government arrested several army and police officers, accusing them of negligence. Officials also promptly claimed to have detained the culprits, and they aired a video of a man who confessed to organizing the attacks. But U.S. officials later cast doubt on the veracity of the arrests and the confession.
Among the wounded were three American security contractors, a U.S. Embassy official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity under diplomatic ground rules.
No one claimed credit for the attack Sunday.
"We don't know whether it's the political parties, al-Qaida, neighboring countries or the Americans," said Ridah Mahdi Mohammed, 41, whose nephew was run over by a vehicle speeding away from one of the bombings. The Americans are primarily to blame, though, he added, because "they control everything, from the sky to the ground."
Information from the New York Times, Washington Post and Associated Press was used in this report.