BAGHDAD - A coordinated wave of car bombs struck Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and several other cities Wednesday, killing at least 66 people and wounding more than 200 in one of the deadliest days in Iraq since U.S. troops withdrew from the country.
The bloodshed comes against a backdrop of political divisions that have raised tensions and threatened to provoke a new round of the violence that once pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war. Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents who frequently target Shiites in Iraq.
Wednesday's blasts were the third this week targeting the annual pilgrimage that sees hundreds of thousands of Shiites converge on a golden-domed shrine in Baghdad's northern neighborhood of Kazimiyah to commemorate the eighth century death of a revered Shiite saint, Imam Moussa al-Kadhim. The commemoration culminates on Saturday.
Puddles of blood and shards of metal clogged a drainage ditch at the site of one of the bombings in the city of Hillah, where hours before pilgrims had been marching. Soldiers and dazed onlookers wandered near the charred remains of the car that had exploded and ripped gaping holes in nearby shops.
Most of the 16 separate explosions that rocked the country targeted Shiite pilgrims in five cities, but two hit offices of political parties linked to Iraq's Kurdish minority in the tense north. Authorities had tightened security ahead of the pilgrimage, including a blockade of the mainly Sunni area of Azamiyah, which is near the twin-domed Shiite shrine.
The level of violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq since peaking in 2006-2007 as the country faced a Sunni-led insurgency and retaliatory sectarian fighting that broke out after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. But Iraqis still face near-daily attacks and Shiite pilgrimages are often targeted.
Political divisions also have only deepened, paralyzing the country since the Americans withdrew all combat troops in mid-December.
Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been accused of trying to monopolize power, and tensions spiked after Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi - the highest-ranking Sunni in Iraq's leadership - was charged with running death squads. The government began his trial in absentia since al-Hashemi was out of the country, drawing allegations the charges were part of a vendetta by the Shiite-led government.
The political stagnation has set back hopes for stability in Iraq and stalled efforts to rebuild the country after eight years of U.S. occupation.
`'These violent acts reflect the depth of the political crisis in the country and the escalation of political differences among blocs," said politician Abdul-Sataar al-Jumaili of the Sunni political bloc Iraqiya.
Baghdad military command spokesman Col. Dhia al-Wakeel said the attacks were intended to reignite all-out sectarian bloodshed, "but Iraqis are fully aware of the terrorism agenda and will not slip into a sectarian conflict."
According to accounts compiled by police and health officials in the targeted areas, the first bomb struck a procession at around 5 a.m. in the town of Taji, north of Baghdad, killing seven people and wounding two others.
That was followed by four more morning blasts that hit other groups of pilgrims across the capital, killing 25 people and wounding more than 70.
South of Baghdad, two car bombs exploded minutes apart at dawn in the center of the mainly Shiite city of Hillah, killing 21 people and wounding 53, according to two police officers and one health worker.
A parked car bomb also exploded near a group of pilgrims in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Baghdad, at about 8 a.m., killing two people and wounding 22 others.
In the Shiite town of Balad, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Baghdad, two nearly simultaneous car bombs killed seven pilgrims and wounded 34.
Explosions also targeted Iraqi Kurds in the north.
One person was killed as three blasts rocked the ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, one of them outside the local office of Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani's political party.
Another car bomb targeted an office of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan in the northern city of Mosul, killing two people and wounding four. Two other morning explosions wounded five people elsewhere in Mosul, about 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad. Another car bomb detonated in the afternoon as an army patrol passed by, killing one soldier and wounding four others.
The details were reported by officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
The overall toll made it the deadliest day in Iraq since Jan. 5, when a wave of bombings targeting Shiites killed 78 people in Baghdad and outside the southern city of Nasiriyah.
Shortly after the attacks, al-Maliki chaired a meeting with senior army and police officials to discuss ways to overcome security gaps "used by the terrorists," a statement on the prime minister's website said.