Iraq's government made progress on a new election law that could ease tensions and pledged tighter security Monday after suicide bombings claimed at least 155 lives, including as many as two dozen children trapped in a bus leaving a day care center.
But those promises held little sway with Iraqis outraged at the government's inability to maintain peace in the city.
The twin bombings in what was supposed to be one of the city's safest areas came as Iraq prepares for pivotal elections in January that will determine who will guide the country through the U.S. withdrawal. The blasts seemed designed to undermine Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has staked his political future on restoring safety to the country.
"Al-Maliki always appears on TV bragging that the situation is stable and security is restored. Let him come and see this mass destruction," said Ahmed Mahmoud, who had returned to the blast site Monday to search for his brother's head after identifying his headless body at a hospital morgue by the belt he was wearing.
"I took the body to Najaf for burial. Then I came back looking for the head," Mahmoud said.
The bombings were perceived as an attack on the Shiite-led government, and senior leaders, including the prime minister, the president and the parliament speaker moved quickly Monday to work out a proposed election law designed to help the country move forward with the January vote, said an official close to the talks.
Lawmakers have been wrangling for weeks about the election law, and observers, including the U.S., had worried that failure to agree on the guidelines might delay the crucial vote.
There were few details on the proposal, which the official said would be presented to political party leaders Tuesday before going to the parliament. The official spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the discussions.
Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, scrambled to step up security in the capital, tightening hundreds of checkpoints that already dot the city, snarling traffic for hours. Security reinforcements flooded into the streets, after authorities said they had intelligence showing other targets were next.
"Baghdad security operations decided to step up security and to increase the number of forces especially near government institutions. We have intelligence information that these institutions will be targeted in future attacks," said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi.
The damage from Sunday's bombings was even worse than originally believed, with three major government buildings destroyed or severely damaged, all within a few hundred yards of each other. The first blast hit the Justice Ministry and the Ministry of Municipalities and Public Works across the street, followed by a second explosion at the Baghdad Provincial Administration, akin to City Hall.
A busload of children leaving a day care center next to the Justice Ministry was caught in the first blast and 24 children and the bus driver were killed, hospital and police officials said. Six children were wounded, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
An investigation showed that the two vehicles — a minivan and a 26-seat bus, each packed with thousands of pounds of explosives — likely had to pass through multiple security checkpoints before reaching their targets, al-Moussawi said.
Rescuers continued to comb through the twisted metal and concrete slabs Monday in search of more bodies. Firefighters worked to remove the concrete blast walls surrounding the Justice Ministry to make it easier to take out debris — blast walls that only weeks earlier had been moved closer to the building to allow traffic to move more freely.
Such moves, along with the decision earlier this year to reopen the busy thoroughfare where the blasts occurred, had been hailed by al-Maliki as signs of Baghdad's rebirth. But Sunday's bombings, the worst in over two years, proved an ominous sign for the Iraqi leader's re-election.
"This explosion made people more furious. People will not re-elect this government," said Ahmed Hassan, 50, an employee at the Ministry of Education, who said he was now terrified to go to his job.
Opponents of al-Maliki were quick to place blame.
A statement posted on the Web site of the Sadrist movement, led by the anti-American cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, lashed out at the government and said the security forces were to blame for the blasts.
Baghdad's top security officials reviewed footage taken by security cameras in the area, which showed the 26-seat bus targeted the Justice Ministry and the minibus blew up at the Provincial Administration, al-Moussawi said.
Both bombings were suicide attacks and investigators have recovered some remains from the attackers and were trying to identify them, he said.
The level of violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically since 2006 and 2007, so Sunday's blasts were disconcerting not only for the sheer number of people killed but also because of their sophistication, said Michael Hanna, from The New York-based Century Foundation.
"These types of attacks are more troubling because they are much harder to pull off... So these really shake people's core beliefs about the competency of the government," Hanna said. "These are highly symbolic actions that will undermine Maliki. There's no question about that."
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani said 76 people had been arrested, though he did not say who they were or how they were believed to be connected to the bombings, which took place just hundreds of yards from the heavily fortified Green Zone.
There have been no claims of responsibility, but massive car bombs have been the hallmark of Sunni insurgents seeking to overthrow the country's Shiite-dominated government.
Iraqi officials blamed the attacks on the same network that carried out bombings in August that also targeted government institutions, killing about 100 people, but appeared to stop short of singling out neighboring Syria. Following the August blasts, al-Maliki stridently criticized Syria, saying it was to blame for harboring the perpetrators of the attack.
U.S. and Iraqi forces searched for the leader of a vehicle bomb-making network believed to be connected to the Sunday attacks, raiding buildings in Baghdad on Monday, the U.S. military said in a statement. Eleven members of an alleged vehicle bomb ring operating between Baghdad and the northern city of Mosul were also arrested, the military said.
But al-Maliki's government is limited in how much it can publicly rely on American help, Hanna said. If he asks for their help in an open way, it will be portrayed as a sign of weakness and used against him in the upcoming election.
There may also be a practical limit to how long the heightened security put in place Monday can be maintained. Al-Maliki may be loathe to restore the blast walls he just removed — security measures that helped cut back on violence but also divided the city and stifled commerce.
"Today, more security measures were taken. There was an increase in the number of the security forces. More searching took place and the street that leads to our ministry was blocked," said Siham Abdul-Karim, 49, an employee in the Ministry of Culture. "These measures give us comfort, but they also give us headache. We reach our offices very tired and exhausted."