BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide blast killed at least 17 people at a police forensics office in Baghdad on Tuesday, officials said, the latest attack to raise doubts about Iraq’s ability to keep people safe weeks before a national election.
The blast came a day after suicide bombers in vans and SUVs, helped in at least two cases by gunmen with silenced weapons, attacked three Baghdad hotels, killing 36 people.
Two of the hotels are used by western visitors and media and the U.S. military commander said the attacks might be aimed at deterring foreign companies, and preventing Iraq from securing the investment it needs for future prosperity and stability.
An Interior Ministry official said many of those killed or injured in Tuesday’s blast, in which the driver of a vehicle detonated explosives outside the forensics office, were police.
About 80 people were wounded, the official said.
The bombings have shattered a seven-week lull in major assaults on government buildings and other supposedly secure targets, stoking tensions before March 7 parliamentary polls.
They are a blow to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is seeking a second term, and other incumbent politicians who hope voters will credit them for a sharp reduction in violence in Iraq over the past two years.
Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, spokesman for Baghdad security operations, put the death toll in Tuesday’s bombing at nine and said 68 had been wounded. A Health Ministry official gave the same toll. Death tolls often vary wildly after bomb blasts in Iraq.
Ambulances and firefighters rushed to the scene. The ministry building, which is surrounded by restaurants and shops, suffered major damage, a Reuters photographer reported.
“I’ve heard many explosions in the past, but nothing like this,” said Hassan al-Saidi, a mechanic who works nearby. He said he saw at least five vehicles in flames and more than a dozen people wounded by flying glass.
Moussawi, speaking before Tuesday’s suicide attack, said officials had tightened security after the hotel blasts and had formed a committee to probe insurgents’ tactics and weaponry.
“Because we are at war, we expect such terrorist attacks ... Al Qaeda is still able to mount such attacks occasionally where there are weaknesses in our security measures,” he said.
General Ray Odierno, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said al Qaeda was now staging fewer attacks, but focusing on undermining Iraqis’ faith in the state.
“We’ve been successful over time at whittling down their capacity to sustain a long-term insurgency so they have now transitioned to conducting clear terrorist attacks inside of Iraq to go after the legitimacy of the government,” he said.
Odierno said he expected more high-profile assaults before the parliamentary election and that one aim of the attackers might be to spook investors starting to set foot in Iraq.
Global energy firms are signing deals that could turn Iraq into a top three oil producer.
“They (the attackers) are concerned about Iraq being on the verge of implementing 12 oil contracts around the country because if that gets done there is going to be an incredible amount of oil out of Iraq in five to 10 years,” Odierno said.
“And once you get that money coming in it’s going to change the atmosphere ... and solidify the government.”
U.S. forces are increasingly taking a backseat to local troops as they prepare to halt combat operations by the end of August and withdraw completely by end-2011.
Iraqi forces, rebuilt from scratch after U.S. administrators dissolved them in 2003, are seen as far more capable than they once were, but are still underequipped and undertrained.
Many Iraqis suspect police and soldiers of being at least negligent in the well-planned assaults on Baghdad in the last six months, like the December 8 bombings killing over 100 people and attacks on October 25 and August 19 that killed many more.
Iraqi security forces rely heavily on controversial bomb detection equipment purchased at great cost that British and some Iraqi officials say is practically useless. The bomb detecting wands were still in use around Baghdad on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Khalid al-Ansary and Michael Christie; writing by Missy Ryan; editing by Noah Barkin