BAGHDAD – A suicide bomber slipped through the tightest security net in Baghdad and blew himself up in the midst of lawmakers having lunch in the parliament dining hall Thursday. U.S. officials said eight people, including parliament members, were killed in the deadliest-ever attack in the American-guarded Green Zone.
The stunning breach of security, on the same day that a massive bombing destroyed one of Baghdad’s main bridges, laid a cloud of heavy doubt about progress in the latest U.S.-Iraqi bid to clamp off violence in the capital. The drive has put thousands of troops on the streets in a massive operation to round up militants and their weapons.
A news video camera captured the moment of the blast, about 2:30 p.m. — a flash and an orange ball of fire causing Jalaluddin al-Saghir, a startled parliament member who was being interviewed, to duck. Smoke and dust billowed through the area, and confused and frightened lawmakers and others could be heard screaming for help and to find colleagues. Al-Saghir reportedly escaped injury.
But a woman was shown kneeling over what appeared to be a wounded or dead man near a table and chairs. The camera then focused on a bloody, severed leg — apparently that of the suicide bomber. At least two lawmakers were among the dead.
Three miles north and seven hours earlier, a bombing sent a major bridge linking east and west Baghdad plunging into the Tigris River. Several cars plummeted into the murky, brown water, and at least 10 people were known to have died. Many more were believed missing.
Police blamed a suicide truck bomber for the attack on the al-Sarafiya bridge, which the British built in the 1950s. AP Television News video, however, showed the bridge broken in two places — perhaps the result of two blasts.
Security officials at
Iraq’s parliament said they believed the bomber in the cafeteria attack was a bodyguard of a Sunni lawmaker who was not among the casualties. The bombing, which wounded both Sunnis and Shiites, showed that determined suicide assailants remain capable of striking at will.
U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said the attack bore the trademarks of al-Qaida in Iraq. The terrorist group is fighting not only to oust U.S. forces from Iraq but also against fellow Sunnis in the west of the country who have begun to leave the insurgency and side with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers.
“We don’t know at this point who it was. We do know in the past that suicide vests have been used predominantly by al-Qaida,” the U.S. military spokesman said.
One of the lawmakers killed in the attack, Mohammed Awad, was a member of the moderate Sunni National Dialogue Front, according to party leader Saleh al-Mutlaq. A female Sunni lawmaker from the same list was wounded, he said.
A second Sunni lawmaker known to have been killed was Taha al-Liheibi, a key go-between in government efforts to negotiate with Sunni insurgents about putting down their arms and joining the political process.
Niamah al-Mayahi, a member of the Shiite United Iraqi Alliance bloc, initially was reported killed by Saleh al-Aujaili, a fellow member of the bloc. Later, al-Dabbagh’s office said al-Mayahi was gravely wounded, but it was not immediately possible to reconcile the reports.
Nevertheless, it would be the second time in less than a month that a bodyguard wearing a suicide vest attacked a Sunni official. On March 23 a member of Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zubaie’s security detail exploded his suicide vest and seriously wounded al-Zubaie, the highest-ranking Sunni in the Iraqi government.
Security officials told The Associated Press then that the bodyguard was a distant relative who had been arrested as an insurgent, freed at al-Zubaie’s request, then hired as a bodyguard. At the time, the assassination attempt was at least the third major security breach involving a top politician in four months.
The parliament security officials, who spoke Thursday on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information, said two satchel bombs also were found in the parliament building near the dining hall. A U.S. military bomb squad took the explosives away and detonated them without incident, the officials said.
Caldwell said eight were dead in the blast, but hours after the bombing Iraqi officials were giving wildly varying accounts of how many people died and who they were. The government never gave a final death toll Thursday.
President Bush strongly condemned the attack, saying: “My message to the Iraqi government is `We stand with you.'”
“It reminds us, though, that there is an enemy willing to bomb innocent people in a symbol of democracy,” he said.
But congressional Democrats said the attack was evidence that substantial progress was not being made in the war.
“How the president and people around him can say things are going well is really hard to comprehend,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (news, bio, voting record).
“This is the progress we’ve been hearing about?” asked Sen.
John Kerry, D-Mass. “And tell me, how are more American troops going to stop a single fanatic with explosives strapped to his chest?”
Congress has passed bills that would force the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawing American troops. Bush has said he would veto any such measure and that American forces need more time to curb the raging violence.
Hours after the bombing, Iraqi officials including Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh met with the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and decided to put the Interior Ministry in charge of security at parliament, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. The building was previously guarded by a private security company, he said.
Petraeus issued a statement saying the U.S. military extended condolences to those “martyred” in the bombing. It was “an attack on democracy by individuals who oppose the concept of government that is representative of and responsible to the people,” he said.
The video of the bombing was shot by Alhurra, a U.S. government-funded Arab-language channel.
Mohammed Abu Bakr, who heads the legislature’s media department, said he saw the bomber’s body amid the ghastly scene.
“I saw two legs in the middle of the cafeteria, and none of those killed or wounded lost their legs — which means they must be the legs of the suicide attacker,” he said.
The brazen bombing was the clearest evidence yet that militants can penetrate even the most secure locations. Masses of U.S. and Iraqi soldiers are on the streets in the ninth week of the security crackdown in the capital; security measures have been significantly hardened inside the Green Zone, home to the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government.
Earlier in the day, security officials brought dogs inside the building in a rare precaution — apparently concerned that an attack might take place.
But a security scanner that checks pedestrians at the entrance to the Green Zone near the parliament building was not working Thursday, Abu Bakr said. People were searched only by hand and had to pass through metal detectors, he said.
The previously worst known attack in the Green Zone occurred Oct. 14, 2004, when insurgents detonated explosives at a market and cafe, killing six people. That was the first bombing in the sprawling area.
More recently, the U.S. military reported April 1 that two suicide vests were found in the Green Zone. A rocket attack last month killed two Americans, a soldier and a contractor. A few days earlier, a rocket landed within 100 yards of a building where U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was holding a news conference; no one was hurt.
The parliament building was built during
Saddam Hussein’s reign as a convention center. After the war, it served as a press center and provided offices for a variety of U.S. and international agencies. The explosion took place just a few steps away from the room where the U.S.-appointed occupation governor, L. Paul Bremer, announced “We got him!” after the capture of Saddam in a spider hole in December 2003.
Besides killing 10 people, Thursday’s bombing of the al-Sarafiya bridge wounded 26, hospital officials said. But the death toll was feared to be much higher: Police tried but apparently failed to rescue as many as 20 people whose cars plummeted off one of Baghdad’s nine Tigris River spans.
Waves lapped against twisted girders as patrol boats searched for survivors and U.S. helicopters flew overhead. Scuba divers donned flippers and waded in from the riverbanks.
Farhan al-Sudani, a 34-year-old Shiite businessman who lives near the bridge, said the blast woke him at dawn.
“A huge explosion shook our house and I thought it would demolish our house. My wife and I jumped immediately from our bed, grabbed our three kids and took them outside,” he said.