BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Suicide bombers attacked three hotels used by foreigners in the heart of Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 36 people and raising questions about government pledges to keep Iraqis safe before a March election.
The car bombs wounded at least 71 people as Iraq executed the man known as “Chemical Ali” under Saddam Hussein for his use of poison gas against minority Kurds.
The hanging of Ali Hassan al-Majeed for crimes against humanity was a high-profile step in the Shi’ite-led government’s prosecution of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime and was likely to fan controversy six weeks before the March 7 parliamentary poll.
The latest in a series of major attacks in Baghdad could be a political setback for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who has built his reputation on pulling Iraq out of war.
The ballot will be held as Iraq emerges from the sectarian slaughter unleashed by the 2003 U.S. invasion and begins to sign multibillion-deals with global oil firms it hopes will usher in a new era of stability and prosperity.
It was unclear whether the hanging of Majeed, a cousin of Saddam, took place before or after Monday’s three separate suicide bombings, which went off within minutes of one another, shattering a seven-week lull in major attacks.
The bombs mirrored a series of coordinated assaults since August on what should be well-protected targets such as government ministries.
The first blast occurred near an entrance of the Ishtar Sheraton hotel, a Baghdad landmark on the eastern side of the Tigris River that has been attacked before. The shock wave blew open doors, smashed windows and sent thick dust swirling into the Reuters offices nearby.
A giant cloud of debris rose from the blast site as ambulances and fire trucks rushed to the scene. Helicopters buzzed overhead and soldiers blocked off entry.
Towering concrete blastwalls protecting the hotel along the Abu Nawas riverside boulevard fell like dominoes.
The building has not been a regular hotel for years, largely housing company offices and some media organizations. But some adventurous international tour groups began using it last year.
Zina Tareq, an Iraqi journalist who was in her office at the time of the blast, said she dived under a desk with the five-year-old daughter of a colleague.
“We heard a deafening sound. The ceiling collapsed on us and the windows shattered,” she said. Another colleague was wounded.
The last major assault in Baghdad occurred on December 8. when a series of car bombs killed more than 100 people. On October 25 and August 19, a total of around 250 people were killed in suicide assaults on government buildings. The blasts appear aimed at undermining Iraqis’ faith in the government and security forces.
The damage was worse in another blast that went off near the al-Hamra hotel, which has been a hub for many Western journalists working in Iraq since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Interior Ministry sources said men armed with silenced weapons attacked the hotel guards just as a Kia van laden with explosives broke through the gates and detonated.
The Washington Post said on its website that three of its Iraqi employees were wounded.
The blast ripped through a residential area near the Hamra, knocking down walls and leaving mounds of concrete blocks and rubble in front of the exposed interiors of homes.
The third bomb exploded near the Babylon hotel. The area around the hotel has been hit several times in the past year by mortar or rocket fire aimed at the U.S. embassy, located across the river in the fortified Green Zone.
Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi put the death toll at 15 killed with 58 wounded.
U.S. military spokesman Major General Steve Lanza linked the attacks on targets to the forthcoming elections and said they were most likely the work of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
“They’re plainly just designed to foment sectarian violence and to really try to break the ability of the national government and the perception of the population that believes that they can provide security,” he said.
Majeed’s execution ended a long debate in the government about executing officials loyal to Saddam.
Majeed was first sentenced to hang in 2007 for his role in Saddam’s gruesome 1988 campaign against ethnic Kurds, codenamed Anfal — or Spoils of War.
In total, Majeed received four death sentences, the last around a week ago for an attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja in which thousands were killed by poison gas.
In a nod to the sectarian taunts Shi’ite Muslim observers heaped on Saddam during his December 2006 hanging, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Majeed was not subjected to any abuse during the execution.
Fouad Masoum, head of the Kurdish bloc in parliament, reacted to the hanging by saying that “justice has been done.”
“This criminal has gotten what he deserved for the atrocities he committed against innocent people. I hope he will be a lesson for others.”
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Ahmed Rasheed and Muhanad Mohammed in Baghdad and Deborah Lutterbeck in Washington; writing by Missy Ryan and Michael Christie; Editing by Ralph Boulton