AT least 69 people were killed in a devastating wave of bombings across Baghdad in the worst violence Iraq has seen in many months.
The co-ordinated series of attacks yesterday involved 16 separate bombs and came only days after the last American forces left the country, amid a major government crisis between Shiite and Sunni politicians that has sent sectarian tensions soaring.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague described the attacks as “cowardly” and urged leaders to “pull together” in the name of stability.
The Richmond MP said: “I condemn the attacks that took place in Baghdad, resulting in the death and injury of a large number of people. I offer my condolences to the bereaved and injured.
“These cowardly attacks come at a time of political tension in Iraq. I hope that leaders from across the political and sectarian spectrum will pull together to establish a dialogue to ensure Iraq’s political stability and to build a stable future.
“The UK will support Iraq in its efforts to defeat extremism and terrorism.”
The attacks have heightened already-growing fears of a new round of Shiite-Sunni sectarian bloodshed similar to the conflict several years ago which pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.
Last night no group had claimed immediate responsibility for the latest attacks but the bombings appeared to bear the hallmarks of al-Qaida’s Sunni insurgents.
Most appeared to hit Shiite neighbourhoods, although some Sunni areas were also targeted.
In all, 11 neighbourhoods were hit by either car bombs, roadside blasts or sticky bombs attached to cars. There was at least one suicide bombing.
Officials said 14 blasts went off in the morning, and two more followed later in the evening.
The deadliest attack was in the Karrada neighbourhood, where a suicide bomber driving an explosives-laden vehicle blew himself up outside the office of a government agency fighting corruption.
Police officers at the scene said the bomber was driving an ambulance and told guards that he needed to get to a nearby hospital. After the guards let him through, he drove to the building where he blew himself up.
Eye-witnesses reported how sirens wailed as ambulances rushed to the scene and a large plume of smoke rose over the area. The blast left a crater about five yards wide in front of the five-storey building, which was left singed and blackened.
“I was sleeping in my bed when the explosion happened, said 12-year-old Hussain Abbas, who was standing nearby in his pyjamas.
“I jumped from my bed and rushed to my mother’s lap. I told her I did not have to go to school today.”
At least 25 people were killed and 62 injured in that attack, officials said. Figures gathered from Iraqi health and police officials across the city put the total death toll at 69, with 169 injured, including the two evening blasts in western Baghdad neighbourhoods.
The co-ordinated campaign would have taken weeks to plan, and appears to have been timed to coincide with the end of the American military presence in Iraq, possibly to undermine United States claims that it was leaving behind a stable and safe Iraq.
Al-Qaida has long sought to sow chaos and provoke the type of Shiite militant counterattacks that defined Iraq’s insurgency.
For many Iraqis and the Americans who fought a nine-year war in hopes of leaving behind a free and democratic country, fears are growing that a nightmare scenario may be unfolding.
The fragile alliance of Sunnis and Shiites in the government is collapsing, large-scale violence with a high casualty toll has returned to the capital, and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is displaying an authoritarian streak and may be moving to grab the already limited power of the Sunnis.
Mr al-Maliki’s Shiite-led government this week accused Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the country’s top Sunni political leader, of running a hit squad that targeted government officials five years ago, during the height of sectarian warfare.