BAGHDAD // A coordinated wave of car bombs struck Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and several other cities yesterday, killing at least 66 people and injuring more than 200 in one of the deadliest days inIraq since US troops withdrew from the country.
The bloodshed comes against a backdrop of political divisions that have raised tensions and threatened to provoke a new round of the violence that once pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents who frequently target Shiites in Iraq.
The blasts were the third this week targeting the annual pilgrimage that sees hundreds of thousands of Shiites converge on a golden-domed shrine in Baghdad's northern neighbourhood of Kazimiyah to commemorate the eighth century death of a Shiite saint, Imam Moussa Al Kadhim. The commemoration culminates on Saturday.
Puddles of blood and shards of metal clogged a drainage ditch at the site of one of the bombings in the city of Hillah, where hours before pilgrims had been marching. Soldiers and dazed onlookers wandered near the remains of the car that had exploded and ripped gaping holes in nearby shops.
Most of the 16 separate explosions targeted Shiite pilgrims in five cities, but two hit offices of political parties linked to Iraq's Kurdish minority in the north.
Authorities had tightened security ahead of the pilgrimage, including a blockade of the mainly Sunni area of Azamiyah, which is near the twin-domed Shiite shrine.
Ammar Tohma, a member of Iraq's parliament, said security forces had not been proactive enough ahead of the pilgrimage.
"I blame the security forces for a lack of intelligence activity and weak planning to stop possible attacks," he said.
The level of violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq since peaking in 2006-2007 as the country faced a Sunni-led insurgency and retaliatory sectarian fighting that broke out after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. But Iraqis still face near-daily attacks and Shiite pilgrimages are often targeted.
Political divisions also have only deepened, paralysing the country since the Americans withdrew all combat troops in mid-December.
The Shiite prime minister, Nouri Al Maliki, has been accused of trying to monopolise power, and tensions rose after vice president Tariq Al Hashemi - the highest-ranking Sunni in Iraq's leadership - was charged with running death squads.
The government began his trial in absentia since Mr Al Hashemi was out of the country, drawing allegations that the charges were part of a vendetta by the Shiite-led government.
The political stagnation has set back hopes for stability and stalled efforts to rebuild Iraq after eight years of US occupation.
"These violent acts reflect the depth of the political crisis in the country and the escalation of political differences among blocs," said the politician, Abdul-Sataar Al Jumaili, of the Sunni political bloc Iraqiya.
The Baghdad military command spokesman, Col Dhia Al Wakeel, said the attacks were intended to reignite all-out sectarian bloodshed, "but Iraqis are fully aware of the terrorism agenda and will not slip into a sectarian conflict."
According to accounts compiled by police and health officials in the targeted areas, the first bomb struck a procession at around 5am in the town of Taji, north of Baghdad, killing seven people and wounding two others.
That was followed by four more morning blasts that hit other groups of pilgrims across the capital, killing 25 people and wounding more than 70.
South of Baghdad, two car bombs exploded minutes apart around dawn in the centre of the mainly Shiite city of Hillah, killing 21 people and wounding 53, according to two police officers and one health worker.
A parked car bomb also exploded near a group of pilgrims in the Shiite holy city of Karbala at about 8am, killing two people and wounding 22 others. And in the Shiite town of Balad, two nearly simultaneous car bombs killed seven pilgrims and wounded 34.
The overall toll made it the deadliest day in Iraq since January 5, when a wave of bombings targeting Shiites killed 78 people in Baghdad and outside the city of Nasiriyah.
Shortly after the attacks, Mr Al Maliki chaired a meeting with senior army and police officials to discuss ways to overcome security gaps "used by the terrorists", a statement on the prime minister's website said.
* Associated Press with additional reporting by Nizar Latif in Baghdad