Baghdad // Hotels popular with journalists, businessmen and VIPs were attacked in Baghdad yesterday, with three powerful car bombs demolishing concrete walls and killing at least 36 people. Shortly after the explosions, the Iraqi government announced that Ali Hassan al Majid, the cousin of former president Saddam Hussein better known as "Chemical Ali", had been executed for crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to death last week for ordering a gas attack on Kurds in Halabja in which up to 5,000 people, mainly civilians, lost their lives. This was the fourth death sentence handed down against him.
No immediate claim of responsibility was made for yesterday's blasts and there was no indication they were connected to the execution of al Majid, a senior Baathist. More likely the attackers were hoping to expose gaps in security in the run-up to the March election, as well as inflame growing tensions after more than 500 candidates, including senior Sunnis and nationalists, were barred from standing for parliament by a controversial Shiite-controlled de-Baathification committee.
The Iraqi government has recently been courting western businesses as part of its reconstruction drive, trying to convince engineering firms that the country is now safe. That major hotels, including the heavily fortified Sheraton, are so vulnerable will have done little to encourage companies still unsure of the risks associated with working in a country ravaged by a deadly, if depleted, insurgency.
Regardless of improvements in security since the bloody days of 2007, militants again proved they are capable of staging co-ordinated attacks in the heart of Iraq's capital. The first bomb exploded at the Sheraton in central Baghdad at about 3.30pm, quickly followed by two others, at the nearby Babylon and Hamra hotels. Police reports said the attacks all involved suicide car bombs, but a witness at the Hamra said he believed the explosion had been set off by remote control.
"I saw a man trigger the bomb and after the explosion he was running with a pistol," said Abdullah al Jubori, a restaurant worker. "The police tried to shoot him but missed and he got into a waiting car and it drove off at high speed. I'm sure he escaped." The Hamra bomb left a deep crater about 25 metres from the hotel, where many foreign reporters stay. The Sheraton blast was similarly powerful, knocking over concrete blast shields. "It was a huge bomb, the area was devastated afterwards," said Ahmed al Barhadili, a reporter for Radio Sawa, which has offices in the Palestine Hotel next door.
Some Iraqi journalists said they believed the attacks were designed to intimidate the media. With the election little more than a month away, the government is struggling to prove it is competent on security issues. Although casualty rates have fallen since US troops handed over control of urban areas to Iraqi forces last summer, insurgents have managed to pull off a string of co-ordinated bombings, killing and wounding hundreds.
The latest blasts further undermined the prime minister's claim to have safeguarded the capital, according to Salah al Askari, an independent military analyst who served as a senior officer in the Iraqi army under Saddam. "With its focus on the election the government has taken its eye off security and has left significant gaps in the defences of Baghdad," he said. "They have been pushing their forces out to Sunni areas like Diyala, Anbar and Mosul to prevent any uprising after the election blacklisting. That has left Baghdad short of troops for protection."
Insurgent groups are widely believed to have infiltrated the security services, the only real explanation for the apparent ease with which they pass the checkpoints that fortify the capital. firstname.lastname@example.org