The United States has condemned a wave of bomb attacks in Iraq that killed at least 127 people, pledging "to support the Iraqi people as they face down violent extremism".
Less than nine months before the US is to pull out combat troops from Iraq, Tuesday's attacks in the capital, Baghdad, underlined concerns over the readiness of Iraqi forces to handle security alone.
Iraqi authorities faced angry questions about how bombers again found holes in Iraqi security and the attacks prompted Joe Biden, the US vice-president, to call on Iraq's leaders to show support.
"The United States strongly condemns these attacks on the Iraqi people and their elected government," Biden's office said on Tuesday, adding that Washington would stand with Iraqis as a partner and friend as they build national unity.
Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, said "the terrorists who murdered innocent civilians today will not succeed in undermining the Iraqi people's progress toward a more peaceful and democratic future".
"The United States will continue to support the Iraqi people as they face down violent extremism and work to build a more peaceful and democratic nation," she said.
Deadline on track
But Barack Obama, the US president, in his speech announcing a 30,000 troop increase to Afghanistan last week, pledged that US forces would meet the deadline to withdraw US combat troops by August next year and completely pull out by the end of 2011.
The US says despite the violence Iraqi leaders are moving the country in the right direction
And Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed that on Tuesday, saying the co-ordinated violence would not derail plans to begin withdrawing US troops from Iraq in large numbers by August next year.
"Certainly we're always looking at plans that take into consideration other outcomes, but right now we just don't see anything at this point in time that would require us to execute those," the senior US military officer said.
"Clearly I've got my increase in Afghanistan on a balance with the decrease in Iraq, and I can actually execute that within some margin. So it is by no means one for one, or even one brigade for one brigade kind of thing," Mullen added.
"For the worst case kinds of options, obviously, it would start to impede. But right now I don't think we're even close to that."
Tuesday's attacks in Baghdad - the third such co-ordinated wave of attacks to devastate the capital since August - struck government targets across the city in rapid succession, leaving at least 127 people dead and at least 513 injured.
Five bomb-laden vehicles were driven into a finance ministry office, a tunnel leading to the labour ministry, a courthouse, a police patrol, and interior ministry offices in central Baghdad.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Iraqi officials said the attacks bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda and fighters loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baath party who plunged the country into sectarian bloodshed and chaos in 2006-2007.
|The blasts underlined concerns over Iraqi troops' readiness to handle security [AFP]
The last two major strikes on Iraqi government sites were co-ordinated blasts in August and October this year that killed more than 255 people.
Sunni groups linked to al-Qaeda claimed those attacks.
Mullen said he thought the latest bombings aimed to rekindle sectarian strife, but said the Iraqi government had managed to prevent a sectarian "breakout" in the earlier episodes of suicide attacks this year.
"And I think that speaks volumes to the growing confidence the Iraqi people have in their own government," he said.
The latest attacks came hours before an official said that Iraq's general election - the second since US-led troops overthrew Saddam as president - would be held on March 6.
The election is seen as crucial to consolidating Iraq's fledgling democracy ahead of the planned US withdrawal.
Mullen said US troops would not be drawn down until after the elections.
He said US commanders believe that even with the delay in the elections – originally scheduled to be held in January - the force can come down by 50,000 troops by August.
But he said the US military is paying close attention to the situation and working to help Iraqi security forces to address any shortfalls.
"We still have 115,000 United States troops in Iraq as a symbol of the United States commitment here, and we want to see this thing come out well," he said.