BAGHDAD - An apparently coordinated wave of bombings targeting Shi’ite Muslims killed at least 78 people in Iraq yesterday, the second large-scale assault by militants since US forces pulled out last month.
The attacks, which bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents, come ahead of a Shi’ite holy day that draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from across Iraq, raising fears of a deepening of sectarian bloodshed. Rifts along the Sunni-Shi’ite fault line just a few years ago pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.
The bombings in Baghdad and outside the southern city of Nasiriyah appeared to be the deadliest in Iraq in more than a year.
Yesterday’s blasts occurred at a particularly unstable time for Iraq’s fledgling democracy. A broad-based unity government designed to include the country’s main factions is mired in a crisis pitting politicians from the Shi’ite majority now in power against the Sunni minority, which reigned under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.
Some Iraqis blame that political discord for the lethal strikes.
“We hold the government responsible for these attacks. [The politicians] are bickering over their seats and these poor people are killed in these blasts,’’ said a Baghdad resident, Ali Qassim, not long after the first bombing.
The attacks began during Baghdad’s morning rush hour when explosions struck the capital’s largest Shi’ite neighborhood of Sadr City and another district that contains a Shi’ite shrine, killing at least 30 people, police said.
Several hours later, a suicide attack hit pilgrims heading to the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, killing 48, police said. The blasts took place near Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Hospital officials confirmed the causalities. Authorities spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release figures of the dead and wounded, which numbered more than 100.
The blasts occurred in the run-up to Arbaeen, a holy day that marks the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered Shi’ite figure. During this time, Shi’ite pilgrims, many on foot, make their way to Karbala, south of Baghdad.
A Baghdad military spokesman, Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, said the aim of the attacks is “to create turmoil among the Iraqi people.’’ He said it was too early to say who was behind the bombings.
Coordinated attacks aimed at Shi’ites are a tactic frequently used by Sunni insurgents.
The last US combat troops left Iraq on Dec. 18, ending a nearly nine-year war. Many Iraqis worry that a resurgence of Sunni and Shi’ite militancy could follow the Americans’ withdrawal. In 2006, a Sunni attack on a Shi’ite shrine triggered a wave of sectarian violence that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
“People have real fears that the cycle of violence might be revived in this country,’’ said Tariq Annad, a 52-year-old government employee in Sadr City, after yesterday’s bombings.
Attacks on Wednesday targeted the homes of police officers and a member of a government-allied militia. Those strikes, in the cities of Baqouba and Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad, killed four people, including two children, officials said.
Two weeks earlier, militants killed at least 69 people as a wave of bombs ripped through mostly Shi’ite neighborhoods in Baghdad. An Al Qaeda front group in Iraq claimed responsibility.
Iraq’s political mess is providing further ammunition for extremists. The Shi’ite government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant for the country’s top Sunni politician last month. The Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, is holed up in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north - effectively out of reach of state security forces.
Maliki’s main political rival, the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, is boycotting Parliament sessions and Cabinet meetings to protest what its members call efforts by the government to consolidate power.
Although the political showdown appears far from being resolved, there are tentative signs of progress. Maliki met yesterday with the Sunni speaker of parliament, Osama al-Nujaifi, a member of Hashemi’s Iraqiya party. In televised comments afterward, they described the talks as positive and said they will work to find a way out of the crisis.