Dozens of suspected plotters in last week's deadly suicide bombings that killed 127 people in Baghdad were linked to security forces, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Wednesday.
The revelation came as the Shiite prime minister, who is running for re-election in March, sought to assure Iraqis that he has security under control. But repeated security lapses attracted withering criticism from the Sunni vice president who hinted that the prime minister should resign.
Al-Maliki told a news conference that an investigation of the Dec. 8 bombings _ two of which targeted government buildings _ so far has revealed that as many as 46 alleged plotters were linked to three different security agencies.
"The investigation is under way to reveal the circumstances and the names linked to this," al-Maliki said.
The news conference came a day after explosions killed nine in Baghdad and Mosul _ which, in turn, followed the horrific attack that left 127 dead and more than 500 wounded a week earlier. Two other massive bombings in August and October, also in Baghdad, together killed 250. Nearly all the attacks in the capital targeted government buildings.
Al-Maliki blamed all the bombings on al-Qaida extremists and former Baath Party loyalists whom he accused of seeking to scuttle Iraq's March 7 national elections.
"They want to damage the political process," he said of those behind the bombings. "The elections will definitely take place on time whatever the terrorists do."
He added that holding the vote would deal a "body blow" to insurgents seeking to thwart Iraq's political process.
Meanwhile, in a televised speech distributed by his office, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi said militias that have infiltrated Iraqi security forces were partially to blame for safety gaps.
Without mentioning al-Maliki by name, al-Hashemi said political leaders should not remain in power if they cannot protect citizens and government institutions.
"He should say, 'I am sorry, and I quit,' and let somebody else rule this country," al-Hashemi said. "The people will respect him because the people will say that this person has tried and did his best, but the task was bigger than him."
Despite the bombings and other scattered daily violence, al-Maliki said American troops will stick to a December 31, 2011, deadline for leaving Iraq _ a withdrawal he said remains "in a final form, with fixed timetables."
While al-Maliki vowed to stick to the withdrawal timetable, Defense Minister Abdul-Qader al-Obeidi acknowledged the U.S. would be assisting Iraqi security forces in some areas _ gathering intelligence and providing low level security _ up until the pull out.
"They are working at lower levels" to provide security, said al-Obeidi, who was touring an Iraqi air force training facility at a U.S. base in Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad.
Al-Obeidi said security around the election would be tight, similar to provincial elections earlier this year which saw a nationwide curfew with borders sealed and roads closed to cars.
U.S. and Iraqi troops have been running mock election security scenarios north of Baghdad.
Al-Maliki also offered a reward of 100 million Iraqi dinars (US $86,670) to anyone who can help lead security forces to garages or other hideouts where extremists assemble car bombs.
Top Iraqi security officials told parliament last week that car bombs are increasingly being manufactured in Baghdad workshops and prepared near the target sites.
Associated Press Writer Chelsea J. Carter contributed to this report from Tikrit.