BAGHDAD -- Suicide attackers detonated three car bombs near embassies in Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least 38 people and wounding more than 200 in back-to-back bombings. Authorities said they foiled two other attacks aimed at diplomatic targets.
The bombings came two days after a chilling execution-style attack by gunmen who raided homes south of Baghdad, killing 24 people, many of them believed to be anti-Al Qaeda fighters. The rise in bloodshed after a relative lull deepened fears that insurgents are seizing on the political uncertainty after last month's close parliamentary elections to sow further instability.
Sunday's blasts went off within minutes of each other -- one near the Iranian Embassy and two others in an area that houses several embassies, including the Egyptian Consulate, and the German and Spanish embassies, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, a spokesman for the city's operations command center.
"These explosions targeted diplomatic missions," al-Moussawi told The Associated Press, saying the death toll was likely to rise. "It's a terrorist act."
The force of the blasts shook buildings and rattled windows miles away. AP Television News footage showed civilians outside the Iranian Embassy loading casualties into police vehicles and ambulances. Stunned victims in bloody clothes fled the scene as smoke rose.
One man was cradling a small girl wearing a white dress in his arms.
Hassan Karim, 32, who owns a clothing shop near one of the bomb sites, said the first blast shattered windows and knocked all the shelves off the walls. He ran outside after the second explosion just minutes later.
"I saw children screaming while their mothers held their hands or clutched them to their chest," he said. "Cars were crashing into each other in streets, trying to find a way to flee."
The carnage might have been worse. Officials say they thwarted two additional attacks.
Security forces shot and killed a man wearing a suicide belt in a fourth bomb-rigged car near the former German embassy, which is now a bank in the capital's Karrada district, home to several other diplomatic missions, al-Moussawi said.
Another senior Iraqi security official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said a fifth bomber was captured on his way to the Mansour area where two of the explosions occurred.
The official said Iraqi forces were tipped off about a possible attack against diplomatic targets and had begun beefing up security precautions Saturday -- measures he credited with keeping the embassies themselves from serious damage.
"We were fortunate they weren't able to reach their targets," he said.
It was not immediately clear whether any diplomatic staff were among the victims. Several Iraqi guards at the Egyptian Consulate and one Iraqi guard at the German Embassy were killed, authorities said.
Guards at the Egyptian Consulate opened fire on one of the attackers as he drove toward them, but were unable to stop him before the blast hit concrete barriers, al-Moussawi said.
Four Egyptians working at the consulate were wounded by shrapnel, according to Egypt's Foreign Ministry. The Spanish government said one of the explosions caused "considerable damage" to its embassy, but injured no one.
U.S. military spokesman Capt. Jay Ostrich said American forces, including explosives disposal teams, were assisting Iraqi troops at the government's request. He said the U.S. military is "ready to support any further requests for assistance" from Iraqi authorities.
Police and health officials said at least 21 people were killed outside the Iranian Embassy and at least 17 were killed in the other explosions. Some 239 people were reported wounded in total.
One of the police officials said many of the victims were employees at a state-run bank near the Iranian Embassy. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Sunday's coordinated blasts were the deadliest in the capital since suicide bombers attacked three Baghdad hotels favored by Western journalists on Jan. 25, killing at least 41 and wounded more than 100.
While overall violence has dropped considerably in Iraq since 2006 and 2007, the ability of insurgents to carry out large well-planned attacks against prominent targets in the heart of Baghdad shows that significant security lapses remain.
The March 7 parliamentary elections failed to give any candidate a decisive win, and many fear a drawn-out political debate could spill over into violence and complicate American efforts to speed up troop withdrawals in the coming months.
"These terrorist groups ... intend through their terrorism to confuse the political process and the efforts of the political blocs to form the next government," the Iraqi Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Sunday's explosions occurred shortly before 11:30 a.m. after a number of far smaller blasts overnight and early Sunday. One of those earlier blasts, believed to be caused by a bomb underneath a parked car, killed one civilian and injured nine others, according to police.