Baghdad, May 20 (AP): A string of car bombs and shootings tore through Shiite and Sunni areas of Iraq today, killing at least 57 people and escalating fears of a return to widespread sectarian bloodletting, officials said.
The attacks, some of which hit market places and crowded bus stops during the busy morning hours, are the latest in a recent spike in violence in Iraq that has targeted both Sunni and Shiite civilians and pushed the death toll over the past week to more than 200 people.
The scenes have been reminiscent of the retaliatory attacks between the two groups that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-2007.
Tensions have been worsening since Iraq’s minority Sunnis began protesting what they say is mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government.
The mass demonstrations, which began in December, have largely been peaceful, but the number of attacks rose sharply after a deadly security crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq on April 23.
Iraq’s Shiite majority, which was oppressed under Saddam Hussein, now controls the levers of power in the country.
Wishing to rebuild the nation rather than revert to open warfare, they have largely restrained their militias over the past five years or so as Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida have targeted them with occasional large-scale attacks.
But the renewed violence in both Shiite and Sunni areas since late last month has fuelled concerns of a return to sectarian warfare.
The worst of today’s violence took place in Baghdad, where nine car bombs ripped through open-air markets and other areas of Shiite neighbourhoods, killing at least 33 people and wounding nearly 130, police officials said.
The surge in bloodshed has exasperated Iraqis, who have lived for years with the fear and uncertainty bred of random violence.
“How long do we have to continue living like this, with all the lies from the government?” asked 23-year-old Baghdad resident Malik Ibrahim. “Whenever they say they have reached a solution, the bombings come back stronger than before.”
“We’re fed up with them and we can’t tolerate this anymore,” he added.
The predominantly Shiite city of Basra in southern Iraq was also hit today, with two car bombs there one outside a restaurant and another at the city’s main bus station killing at least 13 and wounded 40, according to provincial police spokesman Col Abdul-Karim al-Zaidi and the head of city’s health directorate, Riadh Abdul-Amir.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, but such large-scale bombings bear the hallmarks of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
The violence also struck Sunni areas, hitting the city of Samarra north of Baghdad and the western province of Anbar, a Sunni stronghold.
A parked car bomb in Samarra went off near a gathering of pro-government Sunni militia who were waiting outside a military base to receive salaries, killing three and wounding 13, while in Anbar gunmen ambushed two police patrols near the town of Haditha, killing eight policemen, police and army officials said.
Also in Anbar, authorities found 13 dead bodies in a remote desert area, officials said. The bodies, which included eight policemen who were kidnapped by gunmen on Friday, had been killed with a gunshot to the head.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media.