By Raheem Salman and Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times –
BAGHDAD and BEIRUT — A string of explosions Thursday targeting Shiite Muslim pilgrims in the south of Iraq and mainly Shiite neighborhoods of the capital killed at least 67 people and injured scores, police and hospital officials said.
The attacks took place amid a political standoff between the country’s main Shiite and Sunni Arab factions that has raised fears of renewed sectarian violence after the departure of the last U.S. troops last month.
In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up among pilgrims heading to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, killing 40 people and injuring between 80 and 90, said Maj. Gen. Sabah Fetlawi of the police force in Nasiriya. The explosions happened near the city, which is about 200 miles southeast of the capital, Baghdad.
Earlier Thursday, four bombs exploded in the Baghdad neighborhoods of Sadr City and Kadhimiya, killing at least 27 people and injuring scores, police and health officials said.
The explosions began about 7 a.m., when a bomb attached to a motorcycle detonated in an area of Sadr City where day laborers wait for work and vendors sell food, police and witnesses said. A roadside bomb then exploded nearby.
At least 12 people were killed and 34 injured in the two blasts, officials said. Security forces also found two unexploded devices in the area, they said.
Ali Mohsen Chiyad, a 31-year-old day laborer, said he was just yards away from one of the explosions.
“I saw a ball of fire, then smoke came out from the place. … People were running in all directions,” he said. “Such incidents increase our fears that the violence will mount. … These political problems and differences among the politicians encourage the terrorists to work, in my opinion.”
In Kadhimiya, which is home to a revered Shiite shrine, two car bombs exploded within minutes, killing at least 15 people and injuring 37, officials said.
Thursday’s attacks were the deadliest since Dec. 22, when a wave of bombings in mostly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad killed 71 people.
Such seemingly coordinated assaults targeting Shiites are a hallmark of Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaida, who have sought in the past to capitalize on political tension to reignite the kind sectarian bloodletting that devastated the country in 2006 and 2007.
“Definitely … there is a relationship between these explosions and the political crisis, but it doesn’t mean necessarily that one of the sides in the crisis is directly responsible,” said Dhiya Shikerchi, an Iraqi political analyst. “Maybe there is a third side that is exploiting this crisis to fulfill its agenda to return Iraq to sectarian strife.”
The attacks will likely heighten tensions between members of the country’s Shiite majority, who dominate the government, and the Sunni minority, which presided under the late Saddam Hussein.
Last month, an arrest warrant was issued for the country’s Sunni vice president, Tariq Hashimi, on accusations that he ran a death squad that targeted government officials. Hashimi says the charges are politically motivated, and he has retreated to Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region, where he is beyond the reach of the Baghdad security forces.
Just days earlier, Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had called for a vote of no confidence in his Sunni deputy, Saleh Mutlak, who had likened him to a dictator.
Iraqiya, the main Sunni-backed bloc to which Hashimi and Mutlak belong, is boycotting parliament and Cabinet sessions.
Raheem Salman reported from Baghdad and Alexandra Zavis from Beirut.