Last updated: January 5, 2012 11:53 pm

Iraq sees deadliest day since pull-out

A suicide bomber blew himself up next to a large group of Shia pilgrims in Iraq on Thursday afternoon, in a series of apparently sectarian attacks that resulted in the highest one-day death toll since US troops withdrew from the country last month.

At the same time, a political standoff between Shia and Sunni leaders continued into its third week. A majority of Iraqiya, the Sunni-supported political bloc, boycotted parliamentary proceedings yesterday. And while Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, a Shia, gave another conciliatory speech stressing harmony, his critics said that behind the scenes he is trying to dissolve a political framework established under US guidance that was designed to share power among Shia, Sunni and Kurds.

“They’re busy doing the wrong things,” said Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurd member of the parliament who said he was including all parties and sects in his critique. “They’re busy with conflict, day and night and don’t have time for security.”

Terrorists are taking advantage of the vacuum, Mr Othman said, and are willing to attack both Shia and Sunni civilians to incite militias sympathetic to either side. “They want an armed, sectarian conflict.”

The bombing on the road to the holy city of Karbala, which killed at least 48 people, followed explosions in two Shia neighbourhoods in Baghdad that left at least 24 people dead.

The Karbala bombing injured more than 80 people, according to a provincial security chief, and the explosions in the capital wounded more than 65.

Just before the bombing of the pilgrims, an Iraqi army officer spotted the assailant and tried to intervene, said a security chief, Sajad al-Asadi. The officer tried to wrap his arms around the bomber before he could detonate his explosives. He was killed in the bombing, which occurred near Nasiriyah,about 200 miles south of Baghdad.

Mr Asadi said many of those injured in the bombing were in a serious or critical condition and he expected the death toll to rise. “We are blaming al-Qaeda,” Mr Asadi said, although no group claimed responsibility for the attacks. “This is al-Qaeda’s tactic to target Shiite pilgrims.”

Joel Rayburn, an Iraqi analyst at the National Defense University who earlier served as a US intelligence officer in Iraq, said the attack on the pilgrims could unleash a series of unsettling reactions. It could embarrass Mr Maliki’s government, which has staked its reputation on protecting such pilgrimages. If the attacks continue, that could spark a full return of the Shia Mahdi Army, a militia created by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.

Earlier on Thursday, in Baghdad, an explosives-laden motorcycle blew up near a group of day labourers in Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite slum named for Mr Sadr’s father, a senior cleric who was assassinated during the rule of Saddam Hussein.

Two more bombs were detonated simultaneously near a hospital in the same area, according to interior ministry officials who spoke on condition of anonymity. A total of nine people were killed and 35 injured in those blasts, officials said.

Ninety minutes later, two car bombs exploded near Aruba Square in the Kadhimiyah district of northern Baghdad, killing 15 and injuring 31, according to initial reports.

Major General Qassim Atta, the Baghdad operations command spokesman, told government-run al-Iraqiya television that the blasts targeted innocent civilians. He warned residents that bombings often come in pairs.

“We advise citizens not to gather if they hear the first explosion,” Atta said.

By agreement with The Washington Post. Additional reporting by Asaad Majeed

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