BAGHDAD - Car bombs killed 112 people in Baghdad on Tuesday, leaving charred buses and scattered body parts in a blow to the government's efforts to show it can defend Iraqis before U.S. troops withdraw by the end of 2011.
The bombings could undermine Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's claims to have brought security to Iraq as he campaigns for a March 6 election and could rattle foreign oil officials due in Iraq at the weekend for a contract auction.
The blasts, most detonated by suicide bombers, ripped through crowded areas close to buildings symbolising the authority of Maliki's government, which should have been under tight security after devastating attacks in the capital in October and August.
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 figures 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. Blood splattered the street next to burnt-out minibuses, police vehicles and dozens of crumpled cars at one site, where the blast left a huge crater.
Similar attacks in the past have been blamed on Sunni Islamist insurgents such as al Qaeda and the outlawed Baath party of executed dictator Saddam Hussein.
Maliki on Tuesday repeated those accusations and described the bombings as an attempt by enemies to destabilise Iraq after parliament on Sunday ended an impasse over an election law, allowing national elections to be held next year.
The timing of the cowardly terrorist attacks ... after parliament overcame the last obstacle ahead of the elections, confirm that the enemies of Iraq and its people aim to sow chaos in the country, Maliki said in a statement.
The United States strongly condemned the attacks.
Political analysts said the bombings were meant to shake faith in Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim-led government.
There is one political motive: to show that the government has failed to provide security, said Hazim al-Nuaimi, a political science professor at Mustansiriya University.
NEW INSURGENT TACTIC
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen sharply in the past two years. November's monthly civilian death toll of 88 was the lowest since the 2003 U.S. invasion.
Iraq's security forces, now largely working alone after U.S. troops pulled out of cities in June, have struggled to prevent large-scale attacks, which experts say requires strong intelligence-gathering.
A handful of U.S. soldiers were at the scene of one blast site collecting evidence, while Iraqi police looked on.
Tuesday's attacks were the worst in Baghdad since October 25, when two truck bombs killed 155 people at the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad governor's offices. In August, 95 people were killed when the Finance and Foreign Ministries were targeted.
After each attack, the government ordered tighter security and Maliki promised the culprits would be captured.
The bombings marked a change of tactics for the Sunni Islamist insurgency. Rather than frequent, smaller-scale attacks against soft targets such as markets, they now appear to aim for fewer but spectacular strikes against heavily guarded state targets.
OIL AUCTION STILL ON
In one attack on Tuesday, a suicide bomber blew up his vehicle in a courthouse car park after passing a checkpoint.
Another blast, this time in a parked car 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 suicide bomber detonated his car near a judicial training centre, police said.
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.
(Writing by Mohammed Abbas, additional reporting by Ayla Jean Yackley, Aseel Kami and Ahmed Rasheed; Editing by Michael Christie and Andrew Dobbie)