Deady bomb attacks shake Baghdad
At least 22 people have been killed in a series of explosions and a gunbattle in central Baghdad. The blasts were followed by a co-ordinated assault by gunmen who raided a government building and battled security forces in the streets.
The fighting lasted about an hour, ending with security forces storming the building, killing the gunmen and evacuating hundreds of people who had hunkered down in their offices, according to police.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack bore the hallmarks of al Qaida's Iraqi arm. The group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, frequently uses car bombs and co-ordinated blasts in an effort to undermine Iraqis' confidence in the Shiite-led government.
The attack erupted shortly after midday in Baghdad's Allawi area, a largely commercial area which is home to the Iraqi National Museum and the city's main bus station.
At least two blasts, including one car bomb and another believed to be from a suicide bomber, went off near a building housing the Justice Ministry. A police officer said approximately six gunmen wearing police uniforms quickly stormed the building.
"Everybody panicked (after the first blast) and seconds later we heard a second explosion. I looked through the window and I saw some gunmen wearing police uniforms entering the building. We knew that these policemen were fake," said Asmaa Abbas, a Justice Ministry employee.
A gun battle quickly broke out between the intruders and security forces, as other explosions went off near the bus station and the headquarters for a VIP protection force that provides bodyguards for lawmakers, government ministers and other senior officials. After about an hour, security forces stormed the building and some of the gunmen detonated explosives they were wearing, the officer on the scene said.
Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim said there were more than 1,000 people in the four-storey building at the time of the attack. He said the minister is abroad and was not inside. Police said 55 people were wounded. The dead include seven police officers.
Violence in Iraq has subsided from its peak in 2006 and 2007, but deadly attacks remain frequent a decade after the US-led invasion of March 20, 2003.
Iraq's government is being challenged by weekly protests that began in December from Sunnis angry over perceived discrimination. The demonstrations have been largely peaceful, and most Iraqi Sunnis do not voice support for al Qaida. But al Qaida hopes to exploit the increasing tensions. It believes Shiites are heretics and that Iraq's government is too closely allied with neighbouring Shiite powerhouse Iran.