A barrage of bombings killed nine people in two of Iraq's largest cities Tuesday, stoking Iraqis' anger that insurgents continue to slip past security forces amid looming national elections and the U.S. military's planned exit.
The explosions in Baghdad and Mosul come on the heels of last week's horrific suicide bombings in the Iraqi capital that killed 127 people and wounded more than 500. Those blasts intensified pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to improve security as he heads into key elections early next year.
Though not as deadly as past attacks, Tuesday's bombings struck the same open wound: They were the fourth in recent months to target government buildings and were the latest to hit near the Green Zone, Baghdad's most fortified neighborhood, housing parliament, ministries and the U.S. Embassy.
"There were two military checkpoints using detectors at the beginning of the street, how can such car bombs manage to enter and explode?" said a Baghdad woman who identified herself as Um Ali, her cheeks smeared with blood as she screamed at reporters.
Another bystander, who did not identify himself, shouted angrily that the government was hiding in the Green Zone: "Let the officials get out of the Green Zone."
In Baghdad, three parked cars packed with mines and other bombs exploded within minutes of each other around 7:30 a.m. just outside different entrances to the Green Zone, just as Iraqis were coming to the area for work.
One of the bombs went off near the Foreign Ministry, which was targeted in an August bombing; two others exploded near the Immigration Ministry and the Iranian Embassy.
Five people were killed and at least 16 wounded, according to Iraqi officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Thick clouds of black smoke billowed as firefighters and neighborhood residents worked to put out fires, and security forces fired their guns into the air to disperse growing crowds. Authorities quickly arrested owners of three parking lots where the bombs exploded, charging them with failing to carefully search the cars and check vehicle registration papers.
Four hours later and 225 miles away, in the northwestern Iraqi city of Mosul, two more car bombs and a roadside mine killed four people. The attacks appeared to target a busy neighborhood and a church, wounding up to 40 people, a doctor at Mosul general hospital said, also speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
Mosul, which is Iraq's third largest city and is politically dominated by Sunnis, has been a lingering urban foothold for al-Qaida even as violence has declined across the country.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the bombings. Insurgent groups associated with al-Qaida have claimed responsibility for last week's suicide bombings, as well as two others that targeted government ministries and buildings in Baghdad on Aug. 19 and Oct. 25 and left more than 250 people dead.
Al-Maliki, a Shiite, also blamed loyalists of former dictator Saddam Hussein for the suicide attacks.
The prime minister is running for re-election on a campaign of restoring security and unity in Iraq. But his administration has been under intense pressure over the last week from furious lawmakers demanding answers about the yawning security gaps being exposed even before the United States withdraws its combat troops next summer.
Talking to reporters outside the Green Zone, Parliament Speaker Ayad al-Samarraie denounced Tuesday's explosions in Baghdad and Mosul as "heinous crimes."
He lashed out at Iraq's intelligence services, saying that their work "is less than what is needed and it has not risen to the challenges Iraq is facing."
President Barack Obama wants to end the U.S. military's combat role in Iraq by Aug. 31, 2010, and all American troops are required to leave the country by the end of 2011 under a government agreement.
In Washington, a senior Obama administration official warned that violence is likely to get worse as the March 7 elections approach since insurgents are seeking to undermine Iraqis' confidence in the government. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the issue more freely, said it is feared that the violence could re-ignite sectarian conflicts if it's perceived that one ethnic group is targeted over another.
Overall, violence is at its lowest levels in Iraq since 2003. Recent attacks have been directed at government institutions instead of targets that could spark Shiite-Sunni tensions as in years past.
Underscoring the new threat, two Baghdad lawmakers escaped separate assassination attempts within hours of the bombings. One came under fire by gunmen in a speeding car, and the other was targeted by a sticky bomb placed on a vehicle in her convoy. Both are linked to the political party led by anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Earlier, a joint patrol of Iraqi and U.S. forces in Baghdad discovered and dismantled a fourth car bomb before it exploded, Iraqi authorities said.
Associated Press correspondent Lara Jakes and Chelsea J. Carter in Baghdad contributed to this report.