Baghdad was hit with its first major coordinated attack in six weeks as three car bombs were detonated outside hotels in the Iraqi capital.
The bombs were detonated outside the Sheraton, Al Hamraa, and Babylon hotels in central Baghdad in explosions ten minutes apart. Two of the hotels, the Sheraton and Al Hamraa, are used by foreign journalists. Thirty-six Iraqis were killed and 71 more were wounded.
The attack bears the hallmarks of al Qaeda in Iraq, which has taken credit for three similar attacks since August 2009: the Aug. 19 attack outside Iraqi government buildings that killed more than 120 Iraqis; the Oct. 25 attack on foreign and finance ministry buildings that killed more than 130; and the Dec. 8 strikes that killed more than 120 Iraqis at a court complex, a neighborhood near the Interior Ministry, a mosque, and a market.
While the attacks have been deadly, Al Qaeda in Iraq has not been able to carry out large-scale strikes in the capital less than six weeks apart.
Iraqi authorities have been working to avert the next major strike. On Jan. 12, Iraqi security forces detained four suicide bombers and seized hundreds of pounds of explosives and bomb-making materials during raids throughout Baghdad. Security officials claimed the bombers were en route to attack government ministries and that the bombings would be followed by a wave of political assassinations.
Days later, the Iraqi government announced the arrest of Ali Hussein Alwan al Azawi, who is also known as Abu Imad. Azawi is a top Al Qaeda in Iraq commander who was involved in the first major suicide attack in the capital. The suicide bomber killed 22 United Nations employees, including special representative Sergio Vieira de Mello. The attack led to the United Nations’ withdrawal from Iraq.
The Iraqi government has blamed al Qaeda in Iraq and former Baathists based in Syria for the previous attacks. Iraqi and US officials say that Al Qaeda in Iraq and Baathists are seeking to disrupt the upcoming parliamentary elections on March 7 and are seeking to discredit Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s government.
Last year, the top US military commander in Iraq said that al Qaeda’s affiliate has “transformed significantly” and has begun to work more closely with former Baathist groups that are still fighting the Iraqi government and US forces.
“Al Qaeda in Iraq has transformed significantly in the last two years,” General Raymond Odierno said in early December. “What once was dominated by foreign individuals has now become more and more dominated by Iraqi citizens.”
Al Qaeda in Iraq is thought to be carving out a haven in eastern Syria. Earlier this year, the group’s central leadership in Pakistan dispatched Sheikh Issa al Masri to Syria to help Abu Khalaf to reorganize the network and conduct strikes against US and Iraqi forces.