REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD AND BEIRUT -- A string of explosions ripped through the Iraqi capital on Thursday, killing at least 60 people and injuring nearly 200 just days after the last U.S. troops left the country, police and health officials said.
The attacks came in the midst of a political standoff between the country’s main Shiite and Sunni Muslim factions, heightening fears of a return to the sectarian bloodletting that devastated the country a few years ago.
Authorities said more than a dozen bombs exploded in different parts of Baghdad in a seemingly coordinated assault during the morning rush hour. Most of the targeted neighborhoods were predominantly Shiite, but some Sunni areas were also hit.
In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber detonated an ambulance packed with explosives in front of a government anti-corruption office in the Karada neighborhood, shattering windows and setting cars ablaze. A police officer at the scene said at least 16 people were killed and 45 injured.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the seemingly coordinated attacks bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents linked to Al Qaeda, who regularly target Shiites and have previously sought to capitalize on political tension to ignite sectarian strife.
Iraq’s leaders were quick to link the attacks to the political crisis. In a statement, Prime Minister Nouri Maliki said the timing and locations of the bombings confirmed “the political nature” of the attacks.
This week, Maliki's Shiite-led government accused Sunni Vice President Tariq Hashimi of running a death squad that targeted government officials during the height of the sectarian fighting. An arrest warrant was issued and videotaped confessions were broadcast on state television from three of Hashimi’s bodyguards who said they had been ordered to commit murders.
Hashimi angrily refuted the claims at a news conference Tuesday, saying he was ready to stand trial but only in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, where he has sought refuge. Maliki demanded that the Kurdish authorities hand over Hashimi to face terrorism charges in Baghdad.
The warrant for Hashimi's arrest was announced the day after the last U.S. troops left Iraq, heightening suspicions among many in the Sunni minority that Maliki is trying to sideline their representatives in the country’s power-sharing government and consolidate his authority by arresting and intimidating rivals.
Maliki asked the Iraqi parliament on Sunday to issue a vote of no confidence in his Sunni deputy, Saleh Mutlaq, who had compared the prime minister to a dictator.
The Iraqiya coalition -- a large political bloc that is led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite, and includes Hashimi and Mutlaq as members -- began boycotting parliament on Saturday.
-- Raheem Salman in Baghdad and Alexandra Zavis in Beirut
Photo: Iraqis stand next to debris at the scene of a car bomb attack in the Karada district of Baghdad on Thursday. Credit: Ali Abbas / EPA