BAGHDAD At least four car bombs killed 112 people in Baghdad on Tuesday, leaving charred buses and scattered body parts in a blow to the government's efforts to show it can defend Iraqis before U.S. troops withdraw in 2011.
The blasts could undermine Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's claims to have brought security to Iraq as he campaigns for a March 7 election and also rattle foreign oil executives due in Baghdad this week for an auction of oilfield contracts.
In the third coordinated attack on Baghdad in four months, bombs hit areas near justice buildings, a finance ministry office and a police checkpoint, symbols of government authority and all supposedly under tight security after earlier bombs.
"We had entered a shop seconds before the blast, the ceiling caved in on us, and we lost consciousness. Then I heard screams and sirens all around," said Mohammed Abdul Ridha, one of the 425 wounded in the series of at least four blasts.
Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi gave a lower death toll of 63. It was not possible to explain the discrepancy with the figures provided by police sources.
The Health Ministry said it was difficult to determine the exact number because many bodies had been blown to pieces.
Smoke billowed and sirens wailed as emergency workers removed the dead in black body bags. Blood splattered the street next to burned-out minibuses, police vehicles and dozens of crumpled cars at one site, where the blast left a huge crater.
Similar attacks in the past have been blamed on Sunni Islamist insurgents such as al Qaeda and the outlawed Baath party of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Maliki on Tuesday repeated those accusations and described the bombings as an attempt by enemies to destabilize Iraq after parliament on Sunday ended an impasse over an election law, allowing national elections to be held next year.
"The timing of the cowardly terrorist attacks ... after parliament overcame the last obstacle ahead of the elections, confirm that the enemies of Iraq and its people aim to sow chaos in the country," Maliki said in a statement.
The United States strongly condemned the attacks.
Political analysts said the bombings were meant to shake faith in Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim-led government.
"There is one political motive: to show that the government has failed to provide security," said Hazim al-Nuaimi, a political science professor at Mustansiriya University.
NEW INSURGENT TACTIC
The attacks triggered uproar among Iraqi lawmakers, who lodged a formal summons for Maliki to appear before them in a session on Thursday, a parliamentary official said.
Earlier this year, Iraqi officials began removing some of the barriers that had turned many Baghdad streets into canyons of concrete, but the plan was stopped and security tightened after a series of high profile attacks in recent months.
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply in the past two years. November's monthly civilian death toll of 88 was the lowest since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Even so, Iraq's security forces have struggled to prevent major attacks since they started largely operating alone when U.S. troops pulled out of cities in June. Battling insurgents requires strong intelligence-gathering, which they lack.
A handful of U.S. soldiers were at the scene of one blast site collecting evidence, while Iraqi police looked on.
Tuesday's attacks were the worst in Baghdad since October 25, when two truck bombs killed 155 people at the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad governor's offices. In August, 95 people were killed when the Finance and Foreign Ministries were targeted.
The blasts marked a change of tactics for the Sunni Islamist insurgency. Rather than frequent, smaller-scale attacks against soft targets such as markets, they now appear to aim for fewer but spectacular strikes against heavily guarded state targets.
OIL AUCTION STILL ON
In one attack on Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle in a courthouse car park after passing a checkpoint.
Another blast, this time from a parked car, struck a temporary building used by the Finance Ministry after its main premises were devastated in the August bombing.
A suicide bomber also detonated his car near a judicial training center, police said.
The first blast of the day struck a police checkpoint in south Baghdad about 30 minutes before the other three. It, too, was a suicide bomber in a car packed with explosives.
Iraq's Oil Ministry said it would not cancel the planned tender of oilfield development contracts on December 11 and 12, which executives from the world's main oil companies are due to attend. The deals are seen as crucial to Iraq's efforts to raise the cash required to rebuild after years of war and destruction.
(Writing by Mohammed Abbas, additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley, Aseel Kami, Waleed Ibrahim and Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Michael Christie and Noah Barkin)