Bombs ripped through Sunni areas in Baghdad and surrounding areas Friday, killing at least 76 people in the deadliest day in Iraq in more than eight months. The major spike in sectarian bloodshed heightened fears the country could again be veering toward civil war.
The attacks followed two days of bombings targeting Shiites, including bus stops and outdoor markets, with a total of 130 people killed since Wednesday.
Scenes of bodies sprawled across a street outside a mosque and mourners killed during a funeral procession were reminiscent of some of the worst days of retaliatory warfare between the Islamic sects that peaked in 2006-2007 as U.S. forces battled extremists on both sides.
Tensions have been intensifying since Sunnis began protesting what they say is mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government, including random detentions and neglect. The protests, which began in December, have largely been peaceful, but the number of attacks rose sharply after a deadly security crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq on April 23.
Majority Shiites control the levers of power in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Wishing to rebuild the nation rather than revert to open warfare, they have largely restrained their militias in the past five years or so as Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida have frequently targeted them with large-scale attacks.
Nobody claimed responsibility for Friday's attacks, but the fact they occurred in mainly Sunni areas raised suspicion that Shiite militants were involved. The bombs also were largely planted in the areas, as opposed to the car bombings and suicide attacks that al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents are known to use.
Talal al-Zobaie, a Sunni lawmaker, called on politicians across the religious and ethnic spectrum to put aside their differences and focus on protecting the nation.
"The terrorist attacks on Sunni areas today and on Shiite areas in the past two days are an indication that some groups and regional countries are working hard to reignite the sectarian war in Iraq," he said. "The government should admit that it has failed to secure the country and the people, and all security commanders should be replaced by efficient people who can really confront terrorism. Sectarianism that has bred armies of widows and orphans in the past is now trying to make a comeback in this country, and everybody should be aware of this."
The areas hit Friday were all former Sunni insurgent strongholds that saw some of the fiercest fighting of the U.S.-led war as sectarian rivalries nearly tore the country apart.
The deadliest blast struck worshippers as they were leaving the main Sunni mosque in Baqouba, 60 kilometres (35 miles) north-east of Baghdad. Another explosion went off shortly afterward as people gathered to help the wounded, leaving 41 dead and 56 wounded, according to police and hospital officials.
Grocery store owner Hassan Alwan was among the worshippers who attended Friday prayers in the al-Sariya mosque. He said he was getting ready to leave when he heard the explosion, followed by another a few minutes later.
"We rushed into the street and saw people who were killed and wounded, and other worshippers asking for help," he said. "I do not know where the country is headed amid these attacks against both Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq."
Baqouba was the site of some of the fiercest fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents. Al-Qaida in Iraq essentially controlled the area for years, defying numerous U.S. offensives aimed at restoring control. It also is the capital of Diyala province, a religiously mixed area that saw some of the worst atrocities as Shiite militias battled Sunni insurgents for control.
A roadside bomb exploded later Friday during a Sunni funeral procession in Madain, about 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Baghdad, killing eight mourners and wounding 11, police said. Two medical officials confirmed the casualties.
Another blast struck a cafe in Fallujah, 65 kilometres (40 miles) west of Baghdad, killing two people and wounding nine, according to police and hospital officials.
Ahmed Jassim, a 26-year-old taxi driver, had to take a wounded friend to the Fallujah hospital after the attack.
"We used to meet every Friday to smoke shisha (a water pipe) and we thought we would have a good time today, but things turned into explosions and victims," he said, waiting outside the hospital.
In Baghdad, a bomb exploded near a shopping centre during the evening rush hour in the mainly Sunni neighbourhood of Amariyah, killing 21 people and wounding 32. That was followed by another bomb in a commercial district in Dora, another Sunni neighbourhood, which killed four people and wounded 22, according to officials.
All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to brief reporters.
"It is not a coincidence that the attacks were concentrated in some areas of one sect and then moved the next day into areas of the other sect," said Jawad al-Hasnawi, a lawmaker with the bloc loyal to Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
"It is clear that terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and Baathists are trying hard to reignite the sectarian war in Iraq," he added. "But the government bears full responsibility for this security chaos and it has to take quick and serious measures in order to stop the bloodshed, instead of just blaming other political blocs."
Al-Hasnawi added: "Today and yesterday, the Iraqi people paid for the failure of government security forces. Everybody should expect darker days full of even deadlier attacks."
Iraqis have grown used to a cycle of high-profile bombings.
It was the deadliest day since Sept. 9, 2012, when 92 people were killed, according to an Associated Press tally.
The attacks on Sunnis came after two days of car bombs targeting Shiite areas in Baghdad and other attacks that left 33 dead on Wednesday and 21 dead on Thursday.
The violence against a Sunni Muslim house of worship represented a trend that has been on the rise. About 30 Sunni mosques have been attacked from mid-April to mid-May, killing more than 100 worshippers. It also comes against the backdrop of the civil war in neighbouring Syria that also has taken on sectarian undertones and frequently spilled across the border.
In the southern city of Basra, hundreds of Iraqis attended the funeral of two Shiite fighters killed in Syria. Several such funerals have been held in recent months as Iraqi Shiite fighters have trickled into Syria to fight for President Bashar Assad's regime. The Assad government is dominated by the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, which is fighting mostly Sunni rebels.
Associated Press writers Kim Gamel in Cairo and Nabil al-Jurani in Basra contributed to this report.