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Iraqis begin restoring concrete walls in Baghdad

BAGHDAD (AP) — Workers used giant cranes to raise concrete walls around the blast-scarred Foreign Ministry and other government buildings on Saturday, as Iraqi authorities sought to bolster security after suicide truck bombings that killed scores in Baghdad.

The decision to reinforce vital institutions is a sharp reversal of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's desire to remove the barriers as part of his efforts to make life more normal for war-weary Iraqis before January's national elections.

Wednesday's bombings against the foreign and finance ministries have shaken confidence in a government eager to demonstrate that it can take over responsibility for the country's security from American combat troops, who pulled back from urban areas on June 30 with plans for a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.

"We have to face the truth. There has been an obvious deterioration in the security situation in the past two months," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said during a news conference at his damaged headquarters, which sits next to the protected Green Zone.

Shattered glass and debris were scattered throughout the ministry building and the grounds outside. Walls were stained with blood and bandaged employees hugged and kissed each other while asking about the fate of colleagues.

Zebari said the suicide bombings may have been an inside job, adding that an investigation was under way into how the explosives-laden trucks were allowed through checkpoints and into areas where they are banned from traveling.

Iraqi workers used a yellow crane to lift concrete slabs from 10 flatbed trucks to build a new security barrier around the Foreign Ministry.

The prime minister had announced plans to remove most blast walls from Baghdad's streets by mid-September, but many critics accused him of lifting security measures prematurely for political purposes.

The walls at the ministry were among some of the first ordered removed by al-Maliki in a bid to take advantage of a sharp drop in violence to improve traffic flow and make the city less prison-like.

New concrete barriers also are being erected around the Finance Ministry and nearby offices, officials said.

The U.S. military started erecting the barriers, which are designed to absorb the impact of bombings and rocket attacks and protect against gunfire, after the 2003 invasion.

There are thousands in Baghdad alone, lining the highways, the streets to the international airport and surrounding important government offices, embassies, banks, hospitals and other potential targets.

They also have sealed off entire areas — including the mainly Sunni neighborhoods of Dora and Azamiyah and the Shiite district of Sadr City — making them a symbol of the country's divisions.

The attacks have led to finger-pointing among Iraqi security forces as officials scrambled to contain growing public anger over the security failures. Eleven senior Iraqi security officials have been detained for questioning.

Iraq's intelligence chief Mohammed al-Shahwani also was ousted on Thursday and left for Amman, Jordan, after receiving a letter from the government saying it was time for him to retire, according to a former senior CIA officer with knowledge of the events.

Al-Shahwani has not been implicated in the bombings but actually warned that an attack was likely to occur on the sixth anniversary of the Aug. 19, 2003, bombing at the U.N. headquarters, which killed 22 people, the former CIA officer said on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to be identified.

One of al-Maliki's advisers, who also declined to be identified because he wasn't authorized to release the information, confirmed that al-Shahwani had resigned but refused to give details.

Residents of apartment blocs across the street from the Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, were fixing windows and doors blown out by the force of the blast. A black banner placed on a charred car said, "No to al-Qaida. No to Saddam remnants. No to the mean foreign hands that are trying to bring Iraq back to the dark ages."

Wednesday's bombings, which killed about 100 people, have rekindled fears among Iraqis, dashing public confidence in the Shiite-led government and its security forces.

Al-Maliki, who has staked his reputation on security gains, has faced a barrage of criticism over the security lapses that allowed the attackers to drive trucks past checkpoints and position them close to government targets.

In his first speech to the nation since the attacks, al-Maliki cautioned against rushing to blame the security forces and undermining national unity.

"I would like to assure the Iraqi people that the security forces are still capable of continuing the battle and achieving more victories despite all the loopholes that took place here and there," he said in a televised address to mark the beginning of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.

Al-Maliki confirmed an announcement by the Iraqi military that members of an insurgent cell responsible for the attacks have been arrested but gave no details.

The prime minister and other Shiite politicians have blamed an alliance of al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein loyalists for the bombings but offered no evidence. The U.S. military said the attacks bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq.

Zebari warned Iraqis to be prepared for more violence.

"What is coming might be bigger attacks, and the government needs to shoulder its responsibility and deal with the security inefficiencies," he said.


Associated Press Writers Sinan Salaheddin and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Adam Goldman in New York contributed to this report.