BAGHDAD An al Qaeda-affiliated group claimed responsibility for a wave of bombings across Iraq that killed 60 people on Monday and the Interior Ministry said it was facing an "open war" from insurgents bent on plunging the country into sectarian strife.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which was formed earlier this year through a merger between al Qaeda's affiliates in Iraq and Syria, said in a statement posted online it had carefully selected its targets, which were mainly Shi'ites.
The 17 blasts were the latest in a relentless campaign of bombings and shootings that have killed more than 4,000 people since the start of the year. Nearly 900 people have lost their lives in militant attacks in July.
Another 26 people were killed in scattered attacks on Tuesday evening, and the bodies of two unidentified men were found in the northern city of Mosul with gunshot wounds and their hands bound behind their backs.
"The country is currently facing an open war from bloodthirsty sectarian forces that aim to plunge the country into chaos," said the Interior Ministry, warning it would deal harshly with anyone found harboring insurgents.
The ministry said it was setting up a hotline for citizens to report information that uncovered "terrorist cells", offering big cash rewards to anyone who came forward.
Hundreds of convicts ran free after simultaneous attacks on two high-security prisons last week, raising questions about the ability of Iraq's security services to combat al Qaeda, which has been regaining momentum in its insurgency against the Shi'ite-led government.
"The latest operations came at the height of security deployment after the blessed operations to break the chains of the lions in Abu Ghraib and Taji jails," read the statement by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
The group said Monday's attacks were part of a "heavy price" the government would pay for its mistreatment of the Sunni minority, which resents Shi'ite supremacy since the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003.
The jailbreaks came exactly one year after the leader of al Qaeda's Iraqi branch, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, launched a "Breaking the Walls" campaign that made freeing its imprisoned members a top priority, the group said in a statement.
In a separate statement, a spokesman for the combined Syrian and Iraqi groups said the "Breaking the Walls" offensive was over and al Qaeda would move on to a new phase called "the Harvest of the Soldiers", calling Sunnis to join their ranks.
Sectarian tensions in Iraq and the wider region have been inflamed by the civil war in neighboring Syria, where mainly Sunni Muslim rebels are fighting to overthrow a leader backed by Shi'ite Iran.
A suicide bomber blew himself up inside a Shi'ite mosque on the northern outskirts of Baghdad on Tuesday evening, killing six people, and another bomb in a Sunni mosque in the town of Tuz Khurmato killed three.
Six people were killed when a bomb exploded outside a cafe in central Baquba 50 km (30 miles) northeast of Baghdad.
In Baghdad, two blasts near a Sunni mosque in the western al-Jihad district killed two people, and three bombs went off in a busy street in the Turath neighborhood, killing three others, police said.
Gunmen attacked a police patrol in central Mosul, killing two, and in Tarmiya, north of Baghdad, a bomb struck another police patrol, also killing two. A bomb targeted a third police patrol in the town of Mishahda, killing two more.
(Reporting by Kareem Raheem in Baghdad, Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, Ziad al-Sinjary in Mosul and Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall and Stacey Joyce)