BAGHDAD – Insurgents wearing military uniforms stormed Iraq’s central bank Sunday during an apparent robbery attempt, battling security forces in a three-hour standoff after bombs exploded nearby in a coordinated daylight attack that left as many as 26 people dead.
The assault on Iraq’s top financial institution stoked fears that insurgents are taking advantage of political deadlock after inconclusive March 7 national elections to try to derail security gains as the U.S. prepares to withdraw its forces by the end of next year.
The 325-member parliament was due to convene today, but analysts have said agreement on a new government could still be months away.
Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi blamed the attack on al-Qaida in Iraq but said no money had been stolen from the bank, which holds gold deposits as well as U.S. and Iraqi currency.
The violence began with the bombings – which sent plumes of smoke over the city skyline – although there were conflicting reports about the number and nature of the blasts.
The first bomb went off on the road near an electrical generator, al-Moussawi said. Insurgents wearing army uniforms then tried to enter the bank through two entrances, exchanging gunfire with the guards.
He said three suicide bombers detonated their explosives vests at the main entrance of the bank, while two other militants were killed by security forces at the second gate.
Iraqi security forces then stormed the building, prompting a standoff that lasted at least three hours, according to al-Moussawi’s account.
An unknown number of attackers managed to get to a higher floor and set a fire to burn some documents and may have escaped by blending in with the bank employees, he added, saying the motive appeared to be to steal the bank’s deposits, then blow up the building.
Al-Moussawi said 15 people were killed, but police and hospital officials later put the casualty toll at 26 dead and more than 60 wounded.
Earlier Sunday, an independent public watchdog panel said Iraq’s government suffered more corruption last year than any other since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Rahim al-Ogaili, chairman of Iraq’s Commission on Public Integrity, cited 7,797 cases of waste, fraud and abuse in 2009 that resulted in the loss of about 842 billion Iraqi dinars, or about $718 million.
Al-Ogaili said Iraqi leaders largely ignore evidence of corruption, adding: “There are no real and serious measures to fight it.”