Iraq attacks kill at least 23
At least 23 people were killed and 87 wounded in attacks across Iraq yesterday, police said, underlining sectarian and ethnic divisions that threaten to further destabilise the country a year after US troops left.
Tensions between Shia, Kurdish and Sunni factions in Iraq's power-sharing government rose during 2012. Militants struck almost daily and staged at least one big attack a month.
The latest violence followed more than a week of protests against Shia prime minister Nuri al-Maliki by thousands of people from the minority Sunni community.
No group claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, which targeted government officials, police patrols and members of both the Sunni and Shia communities.
Seven people from the same Sunni family were killed by a bomb planted near their home in the town of Mussayab, south of Baghdad.
In the Shia majority city of Hilla, also in the south, a parked car bomb went off near the convoy of the governor of Babil province, missing him but killing two other people, police said.
"We heard the sound of a big explosion and the windows of our office shattered. We immediately lay on the ground," said 28-year-old Mohammed Ahmed, who works at a hospital near the site of the explosion.
"After a few minutes I stood up and went to the windows to see what happened. I saw flames and people lying on the ground."
In the capital Baghdad, five people were killed by a parked car bomb targeting pilgrims before a Shia religious rite this week, police and hospital sources said.
Violence also hit Iraq's disputed territories, over which both the central government and the autonomous Kurdish region claim jurisdiction.
Three militants and one Kurdish guard were killed in the oil-producing, ethnically mixed city of Kirkuk, where militants driving a car packed with explosives tried to break into a Kurdish security office.
Earlier yesterday, two policemen were killed in Kirkuk when a bomb they were trying to detonate exploded prematurely. An army official and his bodyguard were also killed in a drive-by shooting in the south of the city.
Kirkuk lies at the heart of a feud between Baghdad and Kurdistan over land and oil rights, which escalated last month when both sides deployed their respective armies to the swathe of territory along their contested internal boundary.
Efforts to ease the standoff stalled when president Jalal Talabani, a Kurd seen as a steadying influence, suffered a stroke and was flown abroad for medical care in December.
Mr Maliki then detained the bodyguards of his Sunni finance minister, which ignited anti-government protests in the western province of Anbar, a Sunni stronghold on the border with Syria.
A lecturer in law at Baghdad University said the protests could help create the conditions for militant Islamist groups such as al-Qaeda to thrive.
"Raising tension in Anbar and other provinces with mainly Sunni populations is definitely playing into the hands of al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups," Ahmed Younis said.
More than 1,000 people protested in the city of Samarra yesterday and rallies continued in Ramadi, centre of the protests, and in Mosul, where about 500 people took to the streets.
In the city of Falluja, where protesters have also staged large rallies and blocked a major highway over the past week, gunmen attacked an army checkpoint, killing one soldier.
Protesters are demanding an end to what they see as the marginalisation of Sunnis, who dominated the country until the US-led invasion. They want Mr Maliki to abolish anti-terrorism laws they say are used to persecute them.
On Sunday, deputy prime minister Saleh al-Mutlaq, himself a Sunni, was forced to flee a protest in Ramadi when demonstrators pelted him with stones and bottles.
The civil war in neighbouring Syria, where majority Sunnis are fighting to topple a ruler backed by Shia Iran, is also whipping up sectarian sentiment in Iraq.
"The toppling of President Bashar al-Assad and empowerment of Sunnis [in Syria] will definitely encourage al-Qaeda to regain ground," Mr Younis said.