Devastating twin car bombings wreaked carnage in the heart of Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 147 people and injuring 520 others in the deadliest attack in the country in two years.
The suicide bombers struck at the height of morning rush-hour, the first bomb targeting the justice ministry and the second, minutes later, a nearby provincial council building. Some of those killed and maimed were women with children, who had gone to the council to seek compensation for losses suffered in previous bombings and shootings.
The blasts destroyed buildings, and set dozens of vehicles stuck in traffic on fire, incinerating drivers and passengers trapped inside. Smoke billowed from the area near the Tigris River as mangled bodies littered the streets.
As the emergency services warned that the death toll was certain to rise, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has staked his political future on establishing security, blamed al-Qa'ida and supporters of former president Saddam Hussein. "It is the same black hands who are covered in the blood of the Iraqi people," he said in a statement.
Yesterday's bloodbath will raise questions about the British government's decision to start deporting Iraqi asylum-seekers back to Baghdad because it was now deemed to be "safe". Forty Iraqis were sent home two weeks ago and although 30 were turned back to the UK by Iraqi officials, 10 others were taken off the plane in the Iraqi capital.
The Iraqi authorities linked yesterday's blasts to bombings on 19 August that targeted the foreign and finance ministries and killed about 100 people. At the time, army and police officers were arrested and accused of negligence for letting the bombers through.
Officials in the Maliki government also maintained that the August attack had Syrian connections, an accusation strenuously denied by Damascus. But claims have continued that "foreign hands" are attempting to destabilise Iraq in the run-up to parliamentary elections expected next January, the second national vote since US troops invaded in 2003,
"These cowardly terrorist attacks must not affect the determination of the Iraqi people to continue their struggle against the remnants of the dismantled regime and al-Qa'ida terrorists, who committed a brutal crime against civilians," Mr Maliki said in a statement after visiting the scene of explosions. "They want to cause chaos in the nation, hinder the political process and prevent the parliamentary election."
The bombings were a stark reminder to US President Barack Obama that Iraq remained unfinished business and his administration cannot afford to focus all their attention on Afghanistan.
US commanders in Baghdad have warned that the large-scale pullout of troops may lead the relative security achieved with General David Petraeus's surge to unravel. The Iraqi President, Jalal Talabani, said: "The perpetrators of these treacherous and despicable act are aiming at blocking the political process, halting it and destroying what we have achieved in the past six years."
After phoning the Iraqi leadership, Mr Obama issued a statement pledging that the US would "stand with the Iraqis". "These bombings... only reveal the hateful and destructive agenda of those who would deny the Iraqi people the future that they deserve," he said.
Yesterday's attack was just a few hundred yards from the heavily fortified Green Zone which houses foreign embassies and Iraqi ministries. The street had been recently reopened to traffic in what was supposed to be a sign of confidence that safety was returning to Baghdad. The scene outside the council was ghastly: petrol and water from burst mains ran through pools of blood on the road. Wet corpses were being covered by blankets then put into grey body bags and taken to mortuaries.
One witness, Mohammed Fadhil, 19, said: "Bodies were hurled into the air. I saw women and children cut in half. Why this? What sins have these people committed? They are so innocent." Riyadh Jumaa, 32, was with her three -year-old son when they were hurled to the ground by the second blast. "What kind of improvement is there in security?" she demanded "None. The ministers are sitting in their offices doing nothing when this happens."
About 25 staff in the council are believed to have perished. Yasmeen Afdhal, 24, said: "The walls of our office collapsed and we all had to run out." Ali Hassan, a clerk, added: "There were families who had come to get compensation for other terrorist action. Now they are victims again."
Deadliest day since 2007: Two years of attacks
*3 February: Truck bomb kills 135 people and wounds 305 at a market in Sadriya, central Baghdad
*18 April: Multiple car bombings kill 191 people around the Iraqi capital
*7 July: Truck packed with explosives covered with hay blows up in a crowded market in the northern town of Tuz Khurmato, killing 150 people
*1 February: Female bombers kill 99 people in attacks blamed on al-Qa'ida at two popular Baghdad pet markets
*6 March: Two bombs explode in Baghdad's mainly Shia Karrada district, killing 68 people
*17 June: Truck bombing in the north-western Baghdad suburb of al-Hurriya kills 63 people
*20 June: Suicide bomber strikes as crowds of worshippers leave the Shia al-Rasul mosque in Taza, near Kirkuk. At least 73 people are killed
*24 June: Bomb kills 72 people at a busy market in Baghdad's Sadr City
*19 August: At least six blasts strike near government ministries in Baghdad, killing 95 people