BAGHDAD Fifteen people were killed and dozens wounded Sunday when suicide bombers detonated at least one bomb at Iraq's central bank and gunmen battled troops in what officials said may have been a raid on the vaults.
The attack occurred as bank employees were leaving work, sending a thick plume of smoke over Baghdad after the bank's generator was set ablaze.
Security sources gave conflicting accounts of what actually happened, and some said the attackers had been disguised in military uniforms -- a tactic not uncommon in Iraq.
Soldiers and police locked down Baghdad's main arteries, with the capital on high alert for the first session of Iraq's new parliament Monday after a March election that has yet to yield a government.
Troops came under fire from gunmen as they surrounded the bank in case the initial bombing was part of a plan to plunder stockpiles of Iraqi dinars and U.S. dollars, said Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi.
"It's not clear to us whether this was a robbery or an attempt to cause destruction," said Moussawi. "But we can definitely say they targeted the central bank."
Interior Ministry sources said 15 people were killed and 45 wounded. Moussawi told state television there were also four suicide bombers and three gunmen, all of whom were killed. One Interior Ministry source said dozens of attackers in military uniforms were involved and most escaped.
A central bank official, who asked not to be identified, said security forces had ordered all employees and civilians to stay inside while helicopters hovered over the site.
"The security forces warned us that if anyone moves, they will shoot them," the official said. "They let us out after they checked our badges."
"This was a robbery," he said.
Recent weeks have seen a spurt of deadly gold market robberies and attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents as tensions simmer following the inconclusive March election.
Many of the groups that took up arms after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein have turned to crime as the sectarian war and al Qaeda-led insurgency fade. Gunmen killed 14 people on May 25 in a raid on Baghdad goldsmiths and three on June 9 in an attack on a gold market in southern Basra.
The attackers did not gain entry to the central bank's main building but were driven to the rooftops of neighboring buildings within its fortified compound, the bank official said.
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply since the height of sectarian bloodshed in 2006/07. But Sunni Islamist insurgents have sought to exploit the political uncertainty that followed the March 7 election through bombings and assassinations.
The number of civilians killed in violence each month has climbed slowly but steadily since the March vote.
A cross-sectarian alliance heavily backed by the once dominant Sunni minority won the most seats, but the main Shi'ite factions have agreed to form the largest unified bloc in parliament, potentially giving them the muscle to claim the right to form a government.
It is likely to still take weeks if not months for a deal on a government, potentially leaving Iraq rudderless as the U.S. military ends combat operations in August ahead of a full troop withdrawal by the end of 2011.
(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed; Writing by Michael Christie and Matthew Robinson; Editing by Matthew Jones)