BAGHDAD A suicide bomber detonated an explosive-packed car outside a Shi'ite Muslim office in central Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 26 people and wounding more than 190 in an attack bearing the hallmarks of Iraq's al Qaeda affiliate.
The bombing on a Shi'ite religious office comes at a sensitive time, with the country's fractious Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish blocs locked in a crisis that threatens to unravel their power-sharing deal and spill into sectarian tensions.
The attacker targeted the Shi'ite Endowment - a government-run body that manages Shi'ite religious and cultural sites - leaving dead and wounded along a main street nearby and blasting part of its headquarters to rubble, police said.
"It was a powerful explosion, dust and smoke covered the area. At first I couldn't see anything, but then I heard screaming women and children," said policeman Ahmed Hassan, who was at a nearby police station when the bomb went off.
"We rushed with other police to help ... the wounded were scattered all around, and there were body parts on the main street," he said.
Violence in Iraq has eased, but Sunni Islamist insurgents tied to al Qaeda are still capable of devastating attacks and often hit Shi'ite targets to stir up the kind of sectarian pressure that pushed Iraq close to civil war in 2006-2007.
Security officials said initial evidence from Monday's blast pointed to a suicide car bomber. They said the bombing appeared to have been carried out by Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda's Iraqi wing, which often uses suicide bombers in its attacks.
The Shi'ite Endowment has been caught up in a dispute with the rival Sunni Endowment over control of a key Shi'ite shrine in the Sunni stronghold city of Samarra. An attack on the Al Askari shrine in Samarra in 2006 sparked sectarian fighting that killed tens of thousands in the two following years.
Last week, a truck bombing in a marketplace, a car bomb and several roadside explosions killed at least 17 people and broke weeks of relative calm in Baghdad, where daily attacks claimed hundreds of victims at the height of the war.
In mid April, more than 20 bombs hit cities and towns across the country, killing 36 people. Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for those attacks.
Since the last American troops left Iraq in December, nine years after the U.S.-led invasion, tensions have been running high in Iraqi politics with critics of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki threatening to seek a vote of no confidence against him.
Many Sunni and Kurdish leaders say they fear Maliki is shoring up Shi'ite power by sidelining them from power-sharing agreements. But Maliki supporters say his critics have long obstructed the work of his government to try to wrestle more concessions from the Shi'ite leader.
(Reporting by Baghdad newsroom; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Rosalind Russell)