At least 36 killed in wave of Iraq blasts
Baghdad - More than 20 bombs hit cities and towns across Iraq on Thursday, killing at least 36 and wounding more than 100, police and hospital sources said, raising fears of sectarian strife in a country keen to show it can now maintain security.
In Baghdad, three car bombs, two roadside bombs and one suicide car bomb hit mainly Shi'ite areas in what looked like co-ordinated attacks, killing 15 people and wounding 61, the sources said.
Two car bombs and three roadside bombs aimed at police and army patrols in the northern oil city of Kirkuk killed eight people and wounded 26, police and hospital sources said.
"I was trying to stop traffic to let a police patrol pass. When it passed, a car bomb exploded and I fell on the ground and police took me to the hospital," a policeman wounded in the face and chest said as doctors tended his wounds. He declined to be named.
Heightened tension between Shi'ites, Sunnis and Kurds in the fragile coalition government since US troops withdrew in December has raised fears of a return to sectarian violence of the kind that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war a few years ago.
The country is less violent than at the height of that conflict in 2006-07, but bombings and killings still happen daily, often aimed at Shi'ite areas and local security forces.
Kirkuk, home to Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen and others, is at the heart of a long-running dispute between the central government and the autonomous Kurdish region, which claims the city and the region's rich oil reserves.
The rift between Baghdad and the Kurds recently worsened when the Kurdistan Regional Government said it was halting oil exports because the central government was not paying oil firms operating in the north.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is anxious to show it can keep the country secure and attract investment following the withdrawal of US troops.
Baghdad hosted an Arab League summit last month, its first for 20 years, and it passed off relatively peacefully amid a massive security lockdown.
Some critics say the government is not doing enough to stem the threat from militants.
"They are saying they are changing security plans, they are redeploying troops but it is like they are changing the decorations only," Ali Al-Haidari, an Iraqi security expert, said.
"Is there any new technology, any new laws supporting the security process? The answer is no. The natural result for that is there are gaps here and there."
The biggest attack in Baghdad was in the Kadhimiya district, where a car bomb killed five and wounded 24, sources said.
A car bomb targeting the health minister's motorcade went off in the central Haifa district, killing two civilians and wounding at least four of the minister's guards, a police source said. His spokesperson said five guards were wounded in the attack.
Car and roadside bombs also went off in Baghdad's Amil, Palestine Street and Zaafaraniya districts.
A political crisis erupted in Iraq in December when the Shi'ite-led government tried to remove Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq and sought an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi on charges he ran death squads.
Critics of Maliki viewed the moves against two senior Sunni politicians as an attempt by the Shi'ite premier to consolidate power, and many Sunnis fear he is trying to sideline them from government.
Maliki has said the charges against Hashemi were brought by the judicial system and his supporters say he is following democratic norms, not abusing them.
Elsewhere in northern Iraq, two car bombs targeting government-backed Sunni Sahwa militia went off in Samarra, two blasts hit Baquba, a roadside bomb exploded in Mosul and another roadside device exploded in Taji.
There were also shooting incidents and one policeman was killed in the town of Hadid, 10km west of Baquba, when gunmen opened fire on the station where he worked from a passing car, police sources said.
In the mainly Sunni Muslim province of Anbar in the west, two car bombs targeting police killed four and wounded 10 in Ramadi while a roadside bomb wounded four people in Falluja.
Attacks in Iraq are mostly blamed on Sunni Arab insurgents who have refused to lay down arms after the withdrawal of US forces in December.