Car bombs killed at least 112 people in Baghdad today, police said, leaving pools of blood, charred buses and scattered body parts in a brutal reminder of the threat from Iraq's stubborn insurgency.
The blasts, most detonated by suicide bombers, ripped through crowded areas close to government buildings, which should have been under tight security after previous devastating attacks in the capital in recent months.
The bombings undermine Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's claims to have brought security to the country before a national election now scheduled for March 6, and could rattle foreign oil chiefs due in Iraq this weekend for a major contract auction.
"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 numbers 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. Pools of blood had formed next to burnt-out minibuses, police vehicles and dozens of crumpled cars at one bomb site, the blast leaving a huge crater.
"What these gangs are doing are criminal acts which express their bankruptcy and disappointment ... after what the Iraqi people and its political powers have achieved," Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement.
Analysts said the attacks, similar to spectacular bombings in the Iraqi capital in October and August, were meant to shake faith in Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim-led government.
The earlier blasts were blamed on Sunni Islamist insurgents and members of Saddam Hussein's outlawed Baath party.
"It's the same style and the same vital targets. There is one political motive -- to show that the government has failed to provide security," said analyst Hazim al-Nuaimi.
OIL AUCTION STILL ON
In one attack, a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle in the car park of a courthouse, after getting through a checkpoint, police said.
Another blast, this time a parked car bomb and not a suicide bomber, struck a temporary building used by the Finance Ministry after its main premises were devastated in the August bombing.
A third bomber blew himself and his car up near a training centre for judges.
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.
NEW INSURGENT TACTIC
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply in the last two years, and November's monthly civilian death toll was the lowest since the 2003 US invasion.
But Iraq's security forces, now largely working alone after US troops pulled out of urban centres in June, have struggled to prevent major attacks that experts say require strong intelligence-gathering to prevent.
A handful of US soldiers were at the scene of one blast site, collecting evidence, while Iraqi police looked on.
Today's attacks were the worst in Baghdad since October 25, when two massive truck bombs killed 155 people at the Justice Ministry and the offices of the governor of Baghdad.
After each attack, the government ordered tighter security and Maliki promised the culprits would be captured.
The bombings mark a change of tactics for Sunni Islamist insurgent groups such as al Qaeda. Rather than frequent, smaller-scale attacks against soft targets such as markets, they now appear to be aiming for spectacular and less frequent strikes against state targets.