BAGHDAD: A series of attacks including car bombings in Baghdad, an explosion at a market and a suicide assault in a northern city killed at least 66 people Sunday across Iraq, officials said, the latest in a wave of violence washing over the country.
The attacks come as Iraq’s prime minister prepares to travel to Washington to seek U.S. President Barack Obama’s help in confronting a wave of sectarian violence fueled by Syria’s civil war.
Killings, mostly blamed by the Shiite-led government on Sunni Islamists from Al-Qaeda, are running at daily rates not seen in five years, and Nouri al-Maliki will ask Obama Friday to speed up promised deliveries of drones and F-16 jets that he believes can help secure the long desert border with Syria.
Iraq’s own security forces, trained and equipped by the U.S. troops who withdrew in late 2011 after a nine-year occupation, have been unable to prevent a surge in violence, which has taken the civilian death toll so far this year to about 7,000. Sealing the Syrian border would only address part of the problem.
Sunday’s attacks were the deadliest single-day series of assaults since Oct. 5, when 75 people were killed.
Police officers said that the bombs in the capital, placed in parked cars and detonated over a half-hour period, targeted commercial areas and parking lots, killing 42 people.
The deadliest blasts struck in the southeastern Nahrwan district, where two car bombs exploded simultaneously, killing seven and wounding 15, authorities said. Two other explosions hit the northern Shaab and southern Abu Dashir neighborhoods, each killing six people, officials said. Other blasts hit the neighborhoods of Mashtal, Baladiyat and Ur in eastern Baghdad, the southwestern Bayaa district and the northern Sab al-Bor and Hurriyah districts.
Meanwhile, in the northern city of Mosul, a suicide bomber drove his explosives-laden car into a group of soldiers as they were sealing off a street leading to a bank where troops were receiving salaries, killing 14, a police officer said. At least 30 people were wounded, the officer said. Also in Mosul, police said gunmen shot dead two off-duty soldiers in a drive-by shooting.
The former insurgent stronghold of Mosul is located about 360 kilometers northwest of Baghdad.
In the afternoon, a bomb blast killed four people and wounded 11 inside an outdoor market in the Sunni town of Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers north of Baghdad, authorities said.
Sunday night, police said mortar bombs landed on homes in a Shiite district of Madain, a town just south of Baghdad, killing four people and wounding nine, officials said.
Such coordinated attacks are a favorite tactic of Al-Qaeda’s local branch. It frequently targets civilians in markets, cafes and commercial streets in Shiite areas in an attempt to undermine confidence in the government, as well as members of the security forces. All of the car bombings Sunday in Baghdad struck Shiite neighborhoods.
In Mashtal in Baghdad, police and army forces sealed off the scene as ambulances rushed to collect the wounded. Pools of blood covered the pavement. The force of the explosion damaged a number of cars and shops. At one restaurant, the blast overturned wooden benches and left broken eggs scattered on the ground. In Shaab, a crane lifted away at least 12 charred cars as cleaners swept away debris.
Medical officials confirmed the casualty figures for all attacks. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity, as they were not authorized to publicly release the information.
Analysts say the Shiite-led government’s failure to address grievances of the Sunni minority, which complains of political exclusion and abuses by security forces, has been a main cause of the heightened unrest.
Having steadied to a monthly average of 300 to 400 deaths from 2009 to 2012, tolls have close to doubled since violence in April, when government forces stormed a camp where Sunnis were protesting at what they see as their political marginalization.
“The deterioration of security in Iraq is one of the shockwaves of the Syrian crisis,” said Shakir Salman, a former general who advises Iraq’s defense ministry. “Al-Qaeda is working now to undermine Maliki’s government because they think this is one way to accelerate the fall of the Syrian regime.”Maliki, a Shiite who lived in exile in Iran and Syria while Saddam Hussein was in power, accuses Al-Qaeda and Sunni rebels fighting Syria’s Iranian-backed President Bashar Assad of arming and aiding militants in Iraq. Aides to the prime minister say he will ask Obama at the White House Friday to speed up supplies for Iraq’s air force in order to protect its western border.
The United States, which a decade ago hoped to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy for the Middle East, has struggled to maintain its influence in Baghdad as Maliki has developed ties with Washington’s adversaries in Iran.
Obama has demanded Assad step down but has stopped short of military action that could help the rebels to victory. Maliki is likely to urge him to press harder for a negotiated end to Syria’s conflict and to curb the influence of Sunni militants there, sources close to the prime minister have said.
Sources close to Maliki, who is positioning himself to win a third term at an election next year, said he may also present himself to Obama as a figure who could help the U.S. in forming a detente with new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.