Baghdad -- An apparent suicide bombing of the tightly guarded parliament building that killed two Sunni Arab legislators and six other people here yesterday struck at the heart of Iraq's struggling democracy and the U.S. security plan that is intended to bolster it.
The attack in the parliament's cafeteria, which wounded 23 people, highlighted what many have described as serious gaps in security around the building where legislators elected in December 2005 have been struggling with little success to form a consensus to bring peace to Iraq.
The bomb also delivered a harsh reminder that there are few safe places in Baghdad, even the Green Zone, home to U.S. officials, contractors and the Iraqi government.
Hours earlier, a suicide bomber exploded his truck on the Sarrafiya bridge, about four miles from the Green Zone, sending a section of the span into the Tigris River. Several cars tumbled into the current, and at least 10 people were killed.
A military spokesman, Navy Lt. Matthew Breedlove, said there were signs that the parliament blast was the work of someone wearing a "suicide belt." He did not elaborate, but witnesses' accounts supported that contention.
"Now even this place isn't safe anymore. What are we supposed to do?" said one survivor, who had been sitting in the cafeteria. He and a colleague were in shock as they picked human remains off of their pinstriped blazers. Neither was injured, but both were covered in blood and dust.
President Bush condemned the killings yesterday, saying that "it is in our interest to help this young democracy be in a position so it can sustain itself and govern itself and defend itself against these extremists and radicals."
Members of parliament had finished a morning session and were having lunch when the explosion erupted, collapsing part of the ceiling and filling the room and halls with blinding smoke.
People tripped over upended metal chairs as they raced to get outside. Television footage showed one man being pushed outside in a yellow chair, his body slumped and motionless.
An Iraqi security official who asked not to be identified said suspicion centered on a woman who passed through security screening without being searched. The official said he had complained several times that there was no X-ray machine at the building's rear entrance and that "guns and C-4 explosive" could pass without detection.
Some legislators complained that guards don't adequately search members of parliament and their security entourages, and rumors swirled yesterday that a legislator or bodyguard could have smuggled in the explosives.
The U.S. military said it found two satchel bombs in the cafeteria after the blast yesterday. On March 31, two suicide vests were found inside the zone, and at least two unexploded car bombs were defused inside the zone last year. Mortars frequently land inside the zone, and one last month killed a U.S. soldier and an American contractor.
The United States and Iraq are entering the third month of a new security plan that will deploy tens of thousands of additional troops on the streets of Baghdad and surrounding areas, and in troubled provinces such as Anbar. The effort has failed to quell the suicide bombings and attacks on public areas that are considered hallmarks of Sunni insurgents.
The United Nations' special representative in Baghdad, Ashraf Qazi, said the attacks were assaults on the symbols of Iraq's "proud history," a reference to the 70-year-old bridge, and the "hope for its future," a reference to the post-Hussein government.
Elected in December 2005, the legislature was the key institution in the Bush administration plan to reconcile Iraq's many ethnic and religious groups. The 275-member body has been hobbled by those divisions.
Outside the Green Zone, Iraqis have become embittered by legislators' three-day workweek, $5,000 monthly salary and $7,000 allowances for drivers, guards and other staff members. The average monthly salary for a civil servant in Iraq is about $200.
Parliament has not passed the benchmark laws that the United States has been demanding as a measure of progress that could lead to a withdrawal of U.S. troops. Among them are a law that would allow former members of Hussein's Baath Party to hold government jobs and receive their old pensions, and another that would ensure fair distribution of oil revenues.
Chris Kraul and Tina Susman write for the Los Angeles Times.