BAGHDAD Bombers and gunmen with suspected links to a battered but still lethal al Qaeda killed more than 100 people on Monday in a wave of attacks on markets, a textile factory, checkpoints and other sites across Iraq.
The attacks wounded more than 300 others in the capital, Baghdad, the southern oil hub of Basra and other towns and cities, and appeared aimed at showing Iraqis that Sunni Islamist insurgents were still a potent force, even after battlefield defeats in recent weeks.
"Despite strong strikes that broke al Qaeda, there are some cells still working, attempting to prove their existence and their influence," said Baghdad's security spokesman, Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, calling the attacks "hysterical".
The attackers exploited the political disarray that followed a March 7 election that produced no outright winner and pitted a cross-sectarian bloc backed by minority Sunnis against two major Shi'ite-led coalitions.
Two months on, results have not been certified after an election that Iraqis hoped would deliver stable governance as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw more than seven years after ousting Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
In the bloodiest incident on Monday, two suicide car bombers drove into the entrance of a textile factory as workers were ending a shift in the town of Hilla, south of Baghdad, a regional office of the national media center said.
A third bomb exploded as police and medics rushed to the scene, causing additional casualties. At least 45 people died and 190 were wounded, a hospital source said.
"This looks like a major campaign by the terrorists, not just in Hilla," said Babil province governor Salman al-Zarqani. The attacks were a reaction to efforts by Shi'ite factions to form a governing coalition after the March 7 election, he said.
The southern oil city of Basra was struck by three car bombs killing 21 people and wounding more than 70 others, security and medical sources said. The first was in a central market and the other two exploded in northern Basra near a petrol station and in a residential area.
Oil production, the bulk of which comes from fields outside the city, was not affected.
Earlier, a suicide bomber wearing an explosives-laden vest and another driving a car killed 13 people and wounded 40 in a marketplace in al-Suwayra, 50 km (30 miles) southeast of Baghdad, said Majid Askar, an official with the Wasit provincial council.
At dawn in Baghdad, gunmen equipped with silencers killed at least seven Iraqi soldiers and policemen when they attacked six checkpoints, while bombs planted at three others wounded several more, an Interior Ministry source said.
"This was a message to us that they can attack us in different parts of the city at the same time because they have cells everywhere," the source said.
A series of further attacks in the western province of Anbar, the volatile northern city of Mosul, the northern and western outskirts of Baghdad and elsewhere took the death toll from Monday's bloodshed to at least 102, with about 350 wounded.
SHOW OF STRENGTH
The attacks reaffirmed the continuing vigor of the insurgency after government forces dealt a series of blows to al Qaeda's network in recent weeks, including an April raid that killed Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.
Overall violence in Iraq has subsided sharply since the height of sectarian warfare in 2006-07, but the March election has fueled tensions again.
The cross-sectarian alliance led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a secular Shi'ite, rode strong support from Sunnis to take a two-seat lead in the parliamentary vote.
Iraq's main Shi'ite-led coalitions, however, have agreed to form an alliance that could deprive Allawi of a chance to try to form the next government, potentially angering Sunnis.
At a news conference on Monday before a meeting of Iraqiya's winning candidates, Allawi repeated his assertion that his bloc had the right to make the first attempt at forming a government.
"We will not allow ... our hands to be tied against attempts to undermine Iraqiya and confiscate the will of the Iraqi electors," he said.
A U.S. State Department spokesman said in Washington U.S. operations and personnel in Iraq had not been affected by Monday's attacks.
"These attacks will not undermine the confidence the Iraqi people have demonstrated in their government and their security forces," he said. "The Iraqi people overwhelmingly reject violence as a way to address their political differences." (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed and Rania El Gamal in Baghdad and Habib al-Zubaidi in Hilla, Reuters Television; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)