BAGHDAD — Coordinated attacks near the main office of Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al Sadr and a series of Shiite mosques during Friday prayers killed more than 50 people and wounded almost 200. These were the worst attacks in Iraq since elections in early March.
Iraqi officials attributed the bombings and several others against law enforcement officials in Ramadi to al Qaida in Iraq (AQI) striking back after a series of arrests of AQI members and the killings of top leaders. While Iraqi and U.S. officials said that dismantling AQI's network has severely weakened the organization, the bombings appear to be a sign that the group is still intent on and capable of sectarian attacks.
Iraqi security officials took the unusual step of announcing the death toll. In a statement run on Iraqiya television, the spokesman for the Baghdad Operational Command said 54 people had been killed and 180 injured in the attacks in Baghdad. At least another six people were killed and 12 wounded by bombings in Anbar province, an al Qaida in Iraq stronghold.
A Sadr official said three of the bombs exploded near the organization's main office in Sadr City in East Baghdad at about 12:30 p.m. just as worshipers were attending Friday prayers.
The Iraqi Army sealed off roads to the area while wounded people were evacuated and the bodies of the dead were removed. The main hospital near Sadr City made an urgent appeal for all hospital staff to report to work and for Baghdad residents to give blood.
Sadr official Ni'mea Abu Zahra said the first bomb was a booby-trapped motorcycle parked across the street from the Sadr office, the second a car bomb on a side street 500 feet away and the third a car battery filled with explosives.
"Most of those killed or injured had come for prayers," he said. He added that there were no senior Sadr officials killed in the blast. Muqtada al-Sadr himself, whose forces fought U.S. troops in the streets in 2004, has been in Iran for more than a year completing his religious studies.
Security around the Sadr office and in most of the teeming neighborhood is overseen by Sadr loyalists rather than Iraqi security forces and is normally extremely tight, but Abu Zahra said there were an unusually large number of unknown people there to attend a wake.
The other bombings were all aimed at Shiite mosques elsewhere in Baghdad or mixed neighborhoods.
A parked car bomb exploded near a Shiite mosque in the Hurriyah neighborhood, a formerly mixed area of Baghdad that became predominantly Shiite after sectarian violence in 2006-2007. Security officials said five civilians were killed and 14 others injured when the car exploded near the Abdul Hadi al Chalabi mosque.
In the al-Amin neighborhood, a car bomb and roadside bomb exploded near the Muhsin al Ameen mosque, killing eight people and wounding 23 others.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, a roadside bomb near the al Sadrain mosque in Zafaraniyah injured six people and two other explosions in the mixed neighborhoods of Dora and Rahmianiya wounded 13 people.
Earlier on Friday in Anbar province, five houses, including the homes of a lawyer and a police officer, were bombed in the town of Khalidiya, near Ramadi.
An Iraqi police officer was killed after storming one of the houses that exploded.
Iraqi officials blamed the attacks on al Qaida in Iraq striking back after a series of arrests and killings of its members, which have resulted in the deaths of two top al Qaida leaders and the dismantling of parts of its network.
Attacks by the organization have been aimed at resparking the sectarian violence that plunged the country into civil war four years ago. Sadr officials said Iraqi security forces also shared the blame for not preventing the attacks and demanded an investigation.
"The powers of darkness - criminal Baathists and Qaida affiliates - will spare no effort to sow the seeds of division in the Iraqi society," said former Sadr member of parliament Faleh Hassen Shenshel. "It is obvious - bombs and explosions in neighborhoods that are mostly populated by one sect in an attempt to provoke sectarian feelings and prejudice."
"Even if this despicable act is al Qaida reacting to the killings and arrests of the past few days that targeted its leaders, they still couldn't have accomplished it without cooperation from some elements in the security forces," he said.
(McClatchy special correspondents Sahar Issa and Mohammad al Dulaimy contributed reporting)