BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Car bombs on crowded streets killed more than 50 people in Sunni Arab areas of Iraq on Tuesday, a sudden spasm of violence in regions which had been comparatively quiet while battles raged in the Shi’ite south.
In one of the deadliest strikes in months, one car bomb killed 40 people and wounded 80 outside a provincial government headquarters in Baquba, local capital of Diyala province north of Baghdad, police said.
Police said the blast killed people on a busy street and in their cars as they were passing the location. Women and children were among the victims.
In all more than 75 people were killed across the country in car bombs, shootings and clashes, a deadly day which underscores comments last week from the top U.S. officials in Iraq that overall gains in security are fragile and reversible.
The U.S. military put the death toll in Baquba at 36. It said three buses were destroyed and 10 shops damaged.
“These acts are intended to inflict fear into the local population and are just another example of the cruelty of the anti-Iraqi insurgency,” a U.S. military spokeswoman in northern Iraq, Major Peggy Kageleiry, said in a statement.
Ambulances struggled to get the wounded to hospitals because of the sheer number of victims. Reuters Television footage showed police ferrying wounded and dead to hospital in the backs of pick-up trucks.
Corpses lay scattered in a hospital yard, wrapped in white sheets. Wounded lay on the floors of corridors in bloody clothes while harried doctors and nurses rushed to apply bandages.
Suspicion over the blast is likely to fall on al Qaeda, given the Sunni Arab militant group’s history of striking with car bombs near government targets and civilian crowds.
A second car bomb, believed to be driven by a suicide attacker, exploded outside a popular restaurant in Ramadi, capital of Anbar province west of Baghdad, killing 13 people and wounding 14 others, a hospital source and police said.
Another car bomb struck an Iraqi police convoy in Baghdad, killing three people and wounding eight, police said.
In Mosul, a northern city that U.S. forces believe is al Qaeda’s last major urban stronghold, police said a suicide car bomb struck a U.S. convoy and a second car bomb exploded when police cordoned the area. They said 17 people were wounded.
Tuesday’s attacks could signal a new campaign by Sunni Arab militants. On Monday, a suicide attacker and two car bombs killed 18 people in northern areas where al Qaeda is active.
The strikes were a reminder of the instability in the Sunni Arab areas at a time when attention has been focused mainly on fighting in Shi’ite areas that erupted late last month.
Most U.S. troops in Iraq are deployed in Sunni Arab areas, which have become quieter in the past year after a build-up of U.S. forces. But troop levels are being cut. By July, 20,000 U.S. soldiers will have left Iraq, bringing numbers to 140,000.
The U.S. military said overall violence in Baquba has fallen by 80 percent since last June, when U.S. troops launched a major crackdown on guerrillas there.
But commanders say militant groups like al Qaeda still have the capability of staging large-scale strikes in those areas.
In Baghdad, fighting has been dominated by clashes between Shi’ite fighters and U.S. and Iraqi troops. Fresh battles erupted overnight and on Tuesday afternoon.
The U.S. military said it had killed at least 10 fighters in Sadr City, the east Baghdad stronghold of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Six were killed in a battle that included helicopter strikes. Four in a battle involving an M1 tank.
Police reported at least six people killed and 26 wounded in Sadr City clashes, which have trapped frightened residents in their homes for weeks.
Fighting in Shi’ite areas in Baghdad and the south has been more intense than at any time since the first half of 2007, thrusting the Iraq war back to centre stage in the U.S. presidential campaign.
In two Shi’ite cities, Basra and Kut, gunmen attacked representatives of Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Both the representatives survived, they said.