Ali Mayali was having lunch with two fellow Iraqi parliamentarians this afternoon when the blast rocked the building. "It was a great explosion," says Mayali, holding a gauze bandage to his left temple shortly after the blast. "I saw many fall on the ground." He also noticed a handful of people plummet from the second floor down into the lobby of the convention center, a large hall inside Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone where the Iraqi Parliament meets. The bomb went off in a cafeteria area next to the Parliament room, turning glass tables, knives and forks into deadly projectiles. "It's a great hit for the government who is talking about the importance of security these days," Mayali, a member of the bloc loyal to hardline Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, says.
The attack Thursday, which may have been carried out by a suicide bomber, killed eight and wounded at least 20. At least two parliamentarians were among the dead. It was not only a direct attack on the government, but it also sent a clear message from the insurgents that there truly is no safe place left in the capital. Just a few hours earlier, a suicide bomber blew up an explosives-packed truck on Baghdad’s Al-Sarafiya bridge, killing at least 10.
But in a country where daily bombs have become commonplace, it’s the security breach in the Green Zone that has caused the most serious jitters. Recent weeks have seen the Green Zone police, run by the American military, cracking down by stepping up patrols and increasing badge inspections. But there were signs of chinks in the security net. Two weeks ago, a U.S. military spokesman confirmed that a pair of suicide vests had been found inside a trash bin in the protected area.
"This is undeniably a breach of security," Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said after talking to some of the victims of Thursday’s attack at the 28th Combat Support Hospital, or CASH, in the Green Zone. "We in the council of ministers have been in contact with the council of representatives for some time about how to tighten security in Parliament. This needs to be investigated thoroughly."
The Green Zone, which has officially been renamed the International Zone, or IZ, has been an odd entity since it was set up after the fall of Baghdad in 2003. It encompasses four square miles of what was formerly Saddam Hussein's choicest real estate on the banks of the Tigris River. As the insecurity increased in the rest of Baghdad, called the Red Zone in military lingo, the concentric rings of security inside the Green Zone kept getting tighter. There are checkpoints manned by Nepalese Gurkhas, by Georgians from the former Soviet Union, by Peruvians and, sometimes, by Iraqis themselves. The Thursday blast was in one of the outer cordons of the Green Zone, which is mostly screened by Iraqi personnel. The security for the Parliament building, which is directly in front of the Al-Rashid Hotel, is also run by Iraqi staff. There are reports that one of the security screening machines leading into the Parliament building may have been down in recent days.
As if to make up for the security lapses, there was a large show of force immediately after the attack. Western security contractors in SUVs and large armored vehicles looking like they’d come straight out of the movie “Road Warrior” blazed around the Green Zone with guns out. All the checkpoints leading up to the Parliament building were shut down, including one staffed by about six Peruvians, backing up traffic for half a mile. A handful of helicopters, including Apaches, buzzed over the attack site; some shot off colorful flares as they banked over the area.
Mayali, the Sadrist parliamentarian, was hustled to the CASH by members of his security team shortly after the attack. He wasn't admitted to the hospital because his injuries were light, so he sat outside in a daze, with ears ringing, waiting for word about his injured colleagues. Many other friends and relatives of the wounded also waited outside the hospital waiting for news. One young man, with blood spattered across both his sleeves, said he had helped carry the injured out of the Parliament building. Parliamentarian Asma al-Moussawi, dressed in a black abaya (a traditional robe) shook her hands in frustration. "Even in the Green Zone this happens," she said, her voice shaking. "This is an alarm for the government and the Coalition forces."
More worrying for some of the Iraqis who live in the Green Zone, it smacked of an inside jobone of several that have occurred here recently. Waqas al-Ubaidi, 30, was waiting outside for word about his injured uncle, parliamentarian Salman Jumayli. "Tell me how the bombs came here?" Ubaidi asked, noting that many officials with security clearances don't get searched. "I think the days coming are more bad," he said. "I'm feeling that." National-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie also visited the victims at the CASH this afternoon and said security at the Parliament building had been a major concern. A thorough search of the building three weeks ago turned up 19 unclaimed pistols. "We told [the Parliament] to give us the force protection. We'll be in charge of the security of the building. They wanted to be in charge of their own security," Rubaie said with a shrug. "We kept away from it."
The attack today crossed Iraq's sectarian divide. One of the parliamentarians killed, United Iraqi Alliance member Niamah al-Mayahi, was a Shia, and another parliamentarian killed was Mohammed Awad, a member of the Sunni National Dialogue Front. Some news outlets reported that a third parliamentarian, Taha al-Liheibi, was killed in the blast, though an official at the Ministry of Interior said he was still in critical condition late Thursday night. "This proves that terrorism is indiscriminate. Sunnis, Shias, Kurds are being maimed and killed in this act," Salih said. This is a reminder that all Iraqis need to be united in the face of terrorism. We have no option."