Baghdad bombing leaves hole in diplomatic corps

Iraq's Foreign Ministry saw 10 percent of its staff killed or injured. Foreign minister blames systemic security breaches for last week's assault.

Karim Kadim/AP
Iraqi security forces stand in rubble Monday from a truck bomb outside the foreign ministry building in Baghdad. Twin truck bombings struck the foreign and finance ministries on Wednesday, killing about 100 people and wounding some 500.

Iraqi diplomats are clearing out the rubble of their bombed Foreign Ministry building while the nation grapples with the aftermath of an attack that has rocked the foundation of its fragile security and served notice that the country is still at war.

The twin suicide truck bombs that exploded outside the Foreign Ministry and Finance Ministry last week killed more than 100 people and wounded almost 600 in attacks on two major symbols of Iraqi sovereignty.

"What happened on Black Wednesday was truly a national tragedy," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters in a press conference Saturday aimed at showing the ministry was working through the destruction. "This incident targeted the whole Iraqi government, the whole Iraqi state, to bring it down."

Outside the twisted facade and gaping windows of the 10-story building, city workers reerected blast walls taken down earlier this year in what Mr. Zebari bluntly described as overconfidence and a systemic failure of security.

"No to al-Qaeda, no to Saddam's henchmen. No to the malicious foreign hands that want to return Iraq to the era of darkness," reads one of the black banners strung across the wreckage in front of the vast apartment blocks built for government employees in the Saddam Hussein era.

Inside, Zebari held meetings in a makeshift reception room with plastic sheeting for walls. Iraqi officials with their heads bandaged walked the halls exchanging news of more severely wounded colleagues.

Thirty-two Foreign Ministry employees were killed in the blast. More than 60 other ministry people were wounded, many of them seriously, when the truck bomb struck. That's 10 percent of the ministry staff injured or killed.

Many of the casualties were young diplomats at the start of their careers in the foreign service.

"They were brilliant," says Ambassador Srood Najib, who lost six of his staff in the Americas department on one of the floors most heavily hit by the blast. "I selected them one by one and watched over them. I was thinking that 10, 15 years from now they could lead us."

Instead, they were buried last week. The unmarried men and women were laid to rest after the funeral services, which, according to Muslim tradition, included mock weddings to make up for what they missed on earth.

"Our goals are to keep working, not to surrender, and to keep life moving in the ministry," says Zebari, walking through a cleared corridor that had been filled with rubble two days ago. They plan to begin rebuilding, floor by floor, if the building is declared structurally sound.

Setback to international relations

It is the second time Zebari is overseeing reconstruction of the ministry, which was looted to the floors after the US invasion in 2003. Six years later, Iraq has diplomatic ties with more than 70 countries. But the bombing, and the security shortcomings it revealed, are certain to set back efforts to woo trade and other foreign missions here.

"I think this will impact the overall impression of how solid the security situation is," says Zebari in an interview against a backdrop of workers hammering. "Unless the government succeeds in providing better security for its own people, not for the missions, others will not be encouraged."

Wednesday's attacks were carried out on the sixth anniversary of the truck bombing of the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad, which killed UN envoy Sergio Viera de Mello and 22 other UN staff. Before last week's blasts, UN officials had been contemplating moving some of their Iraq operations from neighboring Jordan, where they relocated from Baghdad six years ago. Those moves will likely be halted.

The bombing and recriminations between Iraqi security forces, government officials, and political parties has exposed the deep tensions that had been overshadowed by Iraqi and US relief over improved security during the past year, which allowed a pullout of American combat troops from Baghdad in June.

Speaking to US Ambassador Christopher Hill at the Foreign Ministry on Saturday, Zebari described the attack as "Iraq's 9/11."

Ambassador Hill, walking around the 12-foot-deep crater where the truck bomb exploded, says he believes the attack was aimed at the heart of Iraqi sovereignty:

"This really is an attack on Iraq's ability to conduct its foreign policy and to be a member of the international community, and blowing up a building and killing people is not going to stop that process."

Zebari, in unusually pointed public comments, said systemic security breaches over the past month had allowed a series of bombings in the north of Iraq and led to Wednesday's attack, in which the truck bomb was able to drive essentially unimpeded through the streets of Baghdad.

Arrests and accusations

Iraqi officials, who almost instantly announced arrests after the attacks, have given conflicting reports about how it was carried out, but all have blamed Baath Party loyalists for planning the bombing and Al Qaeda operatives for carrying it out.

Eleven Iraqi security commanders responsible for the areas in which the attacks occurred are being held for suspected negligence and possible collaboration.

On Sunday, an Iraqi security spokesman broadcast on TV a taped confession of what he called the mastermind of the Finance Ministry bombing. The man, who appeared strangely composed, said he was a former police officer in Diyala Province and a member of the banned Baath party. He said he'd orchestrated the bombing with an Iraqi Baath leader in Syria.

The governor of Baghdad on Sunday, a member of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's Dawa party, told the Monitor authorities were considering arresting some Sunni members of parliament who may have ordered the attack, a potentially politically explosive move.

The Defense Ministry, in charge of the Army, and the Interior Ministry, responsible for police, have traded accusations over who was responsible for the security breach.

Iraqi ministries are divided among various political parties under a power-sharing agreement first overseen by the US. Four days after the attack, Prime Minister Maliki had neither visited the site of the Foreign Ministry blast, nor sent a senior representative.

The prime minister himself, who has widely been given credit for security gains over the past year, will likely pay part of the political price for the bombings.

On Monday, one of his main coalition partners, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, said it would form a new coalition for elections in January that did not include the Dawa party, which is also Shiite. Maliki has been attempting to form a broad-based coalition that includes Sunnis and Kurds to expand his power base ahead of elections in January.

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