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Al Qaeda says it is behind Iraq attacks

Latest violence called revenge over Sunnis’ treatment

BAGHDAD - Iraq’s Al Qaeda branch has claimed responsibility for the latest wave of bombings and other attacks that killed dozens in Baghdad and across the country, raising concerns over the government’s ability to provide security after the US troop pullout.

The Islamic State of Iraq said in an Internet message late Thursday that it targeted security forces and government officials in “revenge for the elimination and torture campaigns that Sunni men and women face in the prisons of Baghdad and other cities.’’

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Iraq’s Shi’ite-led government has executed at least 68 prisoners this year, a rate that has alarmed human rights groups. Additionally, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, ordered detentions last fall of hundreds of former Saddam Hussein loyalists, most of whom were Sunni.

Thursday’s attacks killed 55 people and wounded 225, increasing fears of a new surge in sectarian violence two months after the US military pulled out.

“These operations were synchronized and their targets were accurately surveyed and chosen, including security headquarters, military patrols, and senior security, judicial and administrative officials,’’ Al Qaeda said in the statement.

The violence is not as frequent as it was during the tit-for-tat sectarian fighting that almost pushed Iraq into civil war a few years ago. But the attacks appear to be more deadly than before the US withdrawal in late December.

Days after the US troops left, a wave of bombs targeting Shi’ites killed at least 69 people. That happened twice more over the following three weeks, killing 78 and 53, respectively. Al Qaeda was blamed.

An aide to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most prominent Shi’ite cleric, said the government must protect citizens by eliminating the terrorist threat.

“Is there a glimmer of hope that these explosions come to an end in Iraq,’’ Sistani aide Ahmed al-Safi said during a Friday sermon in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala.

“After a few days, when people calm down and forget, these explosions take place again,’’ he added. “We live in the whirl of this unsolved security problem. How long will the situation last?’’

Turbulence in Iraq’s political system has also fueled sectarian tensions, but there is no indication so far that it has led to violence. The day after the US withdrawal on Dec. 18, the Shi’ite-led government announced an arrest warrant against Iraq’s highest-ranking Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, on charges he commandeered death squads against security forces and government officials.

Hashemi has denied the charges he calls politically motivated, and many Iraqis fear the case will bring the return of widespread sectarian violence.

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