Two suicide car bombs exploded in downtown Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least 136 people and delivering a powerful blow to the heart of the fragile city’s government in the worst attack of the year, officials said.

Sunday’s explosions, which also injured at least 260 people, went off less than a minute apart near two prominent government institutions - the Ministry of Justice and the headquarters of the Baghdad provincial administration - in a neighbourhood that houses a number of government institutions such as the Ministry of Labour.

The area is just a few hundred yards from the heavily protected Green Zone that houses the U.S. Embassy as well as the offices of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

An official with the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said two American security contractors were injured in the blast, but could not provide details about who they worked for, including whether they were associated with the Embassy, or the nature of their injuries.

U.S. security contractors could be seen at the site of the explosions helping the wounded. Iraqi police and Interior Ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity gave the death toll.

The explosions were caused by car bombs aimed at government institutions, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Mousawi, spokesman for the city’s operations command centre. He added that it was not known whether they were suicide attacks.

“They are targeting the government and the political process in the country,” al-Mousawi told The Associated Press.

Yasmeen Afdhal, a 24-year-old employee at the Baghdad provincial administration, said that after the first blast, dozens of employees began fleeing the building.

“The walls collapsed and we had to run out,” said Afdhal, who was not injured in the explosion. “There are many wounded, and I saw them being taken away. They were taking victims out of the rubble, and rushing them to ambulances.”

Black smoke could be seen billowing from the area where the blasts occurred, as emergency service vehicles sped to the scene. Even civilian cars were being used to transport the wounded to hospitals, al-Mousawi said.

A Shiite member of the Baghdad Provincial Council, Mohammed al-Rubaiey, said at least 25 members of the provincial council staff were killed in the blasts and that the wounded were still being taken to the hospital.

“This is a political struggle, the price of which we are paying,” he said. “Every politician is responsible and even the government is responsible, as well as security leaders.”

The explosions were just a few hundred yards from Iraq’s Foreign Ministry which is still rebuilding after massive bombings there in August killed about 100 people. The bombings were a devastating blow for a country that has seen a dramatic drop in violence since the height of the sectarian tensions in 2006 and 2007. Such attacks near prominent government institutions come as Iraq is preparing for January elections.

RELATED NEWS

U.N. condemns deadly Iraq bombings October 27, 2009

The state of occupied Iraq October 29, 2009

More In: International | News