Sixteen bombs struck Baghdad on Tuesday, exploding near crowded coffee shops and a Shiite mosque and bringing a city still reeling from a major attack Sunday to a standstill.
Iraqi officials said at least 63 people were killed and almost 250 wounded in what security officials said were car bombs and roadside bombs – most of them detonated over the space of less than 90 minutes.
“We don’t know what’s happening right now,” says an Interior Ministry official who did not want to be identified. “There are so many explosions and so many reports right now, we’re overwhelmed.”
US officials said the coordinated attacks bore the hallmark of Al Qaeda in Iraq. An immediate curfew was put in place and roads closed after the string of explosions, which began just as many Iraqis were heading out shopping or for the evening.
In Fallujah, west of Baghdad, mosque loudspeakers announced a lock-down, with no vehicle traffic allowed. The Anbar provincial council said it was prepared to send police to Baghdad, and appealed to citizens to donate blood to the wounded.
The US military said it had reports of 13 to 17 explosions, with about 50 Iraqis killed and more than 100 wounded. In an unusual press release, it said its advisers, working with Iraqi Security Forces, had arrived at the sites of some of the explosions, which seemed to fit Al Qaeda in Iraq tactics.
The attacks come just two days after a team of gunmen stormed a Catholic church during Sunday mass, shooting priests and parishioners and holding others hostage before detonating suicide vests when Iraqi special forces stormed the building.
At least 57 people were dead and more than 75 wounded after the siege and rescue attempt Sunday. The four-hour standoff left more than two-thirds of the parishioners either dead or wounded in the deadliest attack on Christians in recent history.
Funeral service for church victims
At a nearby church in Baghdad’s Karrada district on Tuesday afternoon, senior government officials, security leaders and members of the close-knit Christian community gathered for the funeral of two young priests and 13 other victims.
Relatives of the victims sobbed, some of them fainting as pallbearers carried in the flag-draped coffins and laid them near the altar. Government officials, tribal leaders, and a broad array of political leaders filed in to pay their respects and show their solidarity. Iraqi snipers stood watch on the church roof and mourners were searched entering the building.
Senior Christian leaders addressing the congregation abandoned their normal caution to demand that the government improve security. Almost eight months after Iraqis went to the polls, political parties are still trying to form a new government – a vacuum that many Iraqis blame for fostering the ongoing violence.
“I demand that their promises not remain ink on paper and that they do everything possible to erase the pain by preventing such criminals from carrying out such actions against Iraq and Iraqis,” said the Archbishop of Babylon Athanase Matti Shaba Matoka. He called for more effort in protecting churches and mosques.
"To the international conscience, I say, we want peace and stability in this country – Why can't you feel for us? That there is a people here that want to survive," he said.
“We demand the formation of the government,” another woman called out angrily during a speech by Amr al-Hakim, head of the Islamic Supreme Council for Iraq, one of the main political parties involved in talks to form a coalition.
The attack Sunday by insurgents driving with guns and explosives in an area of Baghdad with multiple checkpoints appears to have been a serious security breach.
The Iraqi government ordered the commander of the police battalion responsible for security in the neighborhood detained for investigation.
The Iraqi government also tightened security around churches in Baghdad and closed roads leading to them. At Our Lady of Salvation, where splattered blood could still be seen on the ceilings and one of the wooden doors blown open by Iraqi commandos, federal police surrounded the building.
“The problem is, no one is really held accountable,” said a senior police officer in the church courtyard. “All the political parties are fighting for positions and they are leaving people out of the equation – they’re not thinking about how to provide security.”
The officer, who did not want his name used because he is not authorized to speak publicly, said he believed Al Qaeda was using the political chaos to reemerge. The Islamic State of Iraq, linked to Al Qaeda, claimed credit for the attack Sunday.
“Their weapons had Osama bin Laden written on them. Even their ammunition – it’s the first time we’ve seen anything like this,” he said, adding he believed they had bases in the Karrada neighborhood.
The two priests killed in the attack are being revered as martyrs. Weeping parishioners reached out to touch their coffins as they were carried down the aisle.
In the back row of the memorial service, the cousins of Father Waseem Qas Boutros, who had been a priest for only four years, said he had been shot by the insurgents after rushing toward them when they shot a child.
“There is no future for Christians in Iraq,” said his cousin Firas Bahjat al-Dabbagh. “Frankly speaking, the government cannot protect people who want to live in peace.”