BAGHDAD Iraqis seethed at their security forces on Thursday after 95 people died and more than 1,000 were wounded in the bloodiest day of attacks in Iraq this year, many blaming political infighting as parliamentary elections near.
Wednesday's explosions struck at the heart of Iraqi state power, close to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone complex, damaging the finance and foreign ministries nearby. The scale of the security lapses fostered political conspiracy theories.
"The reason for the blasts was political infighting, and the Iraqi people are the victims," said shopper Munther al-Lamy at a deserted downtown market that is normally a sea of people.
"Security forces at these checkpoints were loyal to particular parties, which is why they let the attacks happen."
A day after the huge truck bombs in Baghdad, a series of blasts killed at least seven people and wounded 55 in the southern province of Babel, a mainly Shi'ite area that had been relatively calm until earlier this year.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said Wednesday's bomb attacks were a "vengeful response" by al Qaeda to the government's plans to remove most of the city's concrete barriers within 40 days, an effort to restore normal life to city streets.
Life in Baghdad on Thursday was far from normal.
"You can tell people are scared by looking at the market. Only the shopkeepers are here," said store owner Saadeq Jaafar.
The plan to remove blast walls was a display of confidence in Iraqi forces after U.S. troops withdrew from urban centres in June, ahead of a full withdrawal by 2012. Baghdad's security spokesman said the plan would continue despite the violence.
The move is consistent with expectations that Maliki will try to seek a new mandate in parliamentary elections in January by claiming credit for improved security.
"These explosions are aimed at toppling Maliki's government. They are the games of political parties, flexing their muscles to show they are the strongest," said shopper Mudher Hameed.
TURNING BACK THE CLOCK
Iraqis had been growing optimistic after the sectarian bloodshed that followed the 2003 U.S. invasion abated in the last 18 months, but for some, Wednesday turned back the clock.
"My fear now is the same I had two years ago. And I think the coming days will be worse, because the elections are life or death for these political parties," said shopkeeper Taha Ahmed.
Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi said "terrorists" with regional support -- usually an allusion to neighboring states -- were trying to alter the outcome of the elections.
The Shi'ite Muslim-led government earlier blamed followers of Saddam Hussein's Baath party and Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
Moussawi said police on Wednesday arrested suspected al Qaeda propagandists carrying jihadist leaflets. He declined to give more details.
But Iraqis in the street seemed inclined to blame domestic intra-Shi'ite rivalries, or tensions between Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish political parties and factions ahead of the polls.
"After each explosion there are ready excuses, 'Baathists, Saddamists and al Qaeda'," said Ahmed.
The government has been trying to promote a sense of normality and a return of sovereignty after years of U.S. occupation, but that shattered after the blasts.
Calls for the return of U.S. troops to Iraqi towns and cities are especially likely to embarrass the government.
"I think U.S. forces will come back to towns and cities, and I wish they would come, because Iraqi forces can't protect the people," said shopper Mazen Zeki.
Others in the market said they were now going to hunker down until at least after the parliamentary elections, long touted as a milestone in Iraq's fledgling democracy, but now considered by many as a threat to life and limb.
"I'm not afraid for myself, but for my children. I've told my son not to go to college for fear of the blasts until the elections are over or until there's stability," said retiree Jamal al-Safaa.