Four landmark Baghdad hotels were heavily damaged by car bombs this afternoon in the fourth co-ordinated attack on prominent targets as Iraq readies for an increasingly fraught election.
Security officials said at least 36 people were killed and more than 80 injured by attackers including suicide bombers and gunmen.
The blasts took place around the same time as the execution of one of Saddam Hussein's most infamous henchman, Ali Hassan al-Majid, otherwise known as Chemical Ali. The timing raised fresh fears that former Ba'athists had launched the campaign in an attempt to destabilise the government before the poll.
The first bomb was detonated between the Sheraton and Palestine hotels in the centre of the capital, causing massive damage to both well-known structures. Around three minutes later, the Babylon hotel on the banks of the Tigris river, just south of the US embassy, was hit by a suicide bomber driving a car past the perimeter barriers. Damage was also reported to be severe.
The final - and most audacious - attack came just two minutes later when gunmen opened fire on guards manning the gates to the Hamra hotel, which had been home to many foreign reporters since early 2005. In the ensuing firefight, Kurdish peshmerga soldiers, guarding the border of the presidential neighbourhood directly across the street, engaged with an unknown number of insurgents. Guards from the Hamra, employed by a British security firm, also opened fire. As they took defensive positions behind blast walls further inside the Hamra perimeter, a white van with a flashing red light to resemble an emergency vehicle broke through the hotel's security barriers and exploded inside the compound.
"It was racing at incredible speed," said Australian reporter Paul McGeough, who witnessed the Hamra attack from his eighth-floor balcony. "I noticed that it had a red flashing light on its roof and as it detonated, I dropped behind my balcony."
The lower levels of the Hamra were destroyed, with the blast taking place about 30 metres from the lobby.
The Hamra compound, which houses reporters from the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Times and US National Public Radio, was littered with body parts and charred splinters of the bomb vehicle. Wounded people were walking amongst the ruins wrapped in bandages, and damage in the densely populated apartment buildings nearby was reported to be extensive.
Again, the car bombs would have certainly passed the highly contentious British-made explosive detection wands which have been labelled fraudulent by the US military. The British government imposed an export ban on the detectors on Friday after Cambridge University scientists proved the wands – which are used at most checkpoints throughout Baghdad – contained nothing more than a chip used to detect theft from stores.
The death toll from today's attacks is significantly lower than those from the three previous blasts, which saw a total of more than 450 killed and up to 2,000 wounded.
But the symbolism is just as stark. Taking place eight weeks before the planned 7 March general election, they underscore yet again that Baghdad's prime targets remain highly accessible to terrorists and will make it increasingly difficult for the government to claim it has increased security in the capital.