BAGHDAD — Attackers unleashed a carefully planned assault with car bombs and gunmen disguised as police on the Iraqi Justice Ministry on Thursday, killing at least 24 people as hundreds of others crouched terrified in their offices.
The large and complex raid in the heart of downtown Baghdad came less than a week before the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, showing how vulnerable this country remains to insurgent attacks.
The fighting lasted about an hour, ending with security forces storming the four-story building after some of the gunmen detonated suicide vests, according to police and witnesses. None of the attackers survived.
"It was the longest hour in my life," said Asmaa Abbas, who cowered alongside colleagues in her third-floor office while the assailants battled security forces outside.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida's Iraqi arm. The group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, frequently uses car bombs, suicide bombers and coordinated blasts in an effort to undermine Iraqis' confidence in the Shiite-led government.
The attack began shortly after midday in Baghdad's Allawi area, a largely commercial district that is home to the Iraqi National Museum and the city's main bus station.
At least two blasts, including one car bomb and another thought to be from a suicide bomber, went off near the Justice Ministry.
Two other car bombs exploded nearby in what police think was an effort to confuse authorities. One struck near the bus station and the other hit the headquarters for a VIP protection force that provides bodyguards for lawmakers, government ministers and other senior officials.
Amid the chaos, approximately six gunmen wearing police uniforms charged inside the ministry building, according to a police officer who was among the troops sent to clear the area. A gunbattle soon broke out between the intruders and security forces.
After about an hour, security forces stormed the building, and some of the gunmen detonated explosives they were wearing, the officer on the scene said.
More than 1,000 people were in the building at the time of the attack, said Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim, adding that the justice minister was traveling abroad.
Ibrahim said he hid behind the locked door of his office, ordering his bodyguards to shoot anyone who tried to enter.
He described a terrifying ordeal, with at least one suicide bomber blowing himself up on the ground floor of the building, shattering windows and damaging the ceiling.
"When the explosions and shooting started, the guards evacuated me out a back door, and I have no idea what happened after that," he said, speaking by telephone outside the building.
The attack killed 24 people in addition to the gunmen and wounded 57 others, police said. The dead include seven police officers.