Iraqis fear al Qaeda violence after mosque bombs

* Iraqis say fear mosques after attacks

* Mosque attacks raise doubts about Iraqi security forces

* Attacks come month after U.S. forces left urban centres

BAGHDAD, Aug 1 (Reuters) - Iraqis said on Saturday they feared al Qaeda was trying to tip their country back into the sectarian strife that nearly tore it apart two years ago, after a spate of bombs outside five Shi'ite mosques killed 31 people.

The bomb blasts, which occurred within minutes of each other on Friday afternoon, apparently targeted the Shi'ite faithful as they gathered for prayers on the Muslim day of rest.

At least 130 people were wounded in the attacks.

"Why target mosques? Because they want to divide Iraqis, to start a war between the two sects (Sunni and Shi'ite)," said Kafhim Ali, 54, as he shopped in a local vegetable market in Baghdad's upmarket Karrada district.

"I will think again before going to Friday prayers."

No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Shi'ite religious gatherings have often been targets of al Qaeda, whose extreme brand of Sunni Islamism sees Shi'ites as heretics.

U.S. combat forces withdrew from Iraqi cities and towns last month, raising fears that local forces, disbanded and rebuilt from scratch since 2003, would be unable to control security in Iraq, six years after the U.S.-led invasion.


Many Iraqis fear militants will try to exploit any security gap to try to restart violence.

"Qaeda has started to targeting people again because the U.S. forces left the cities. I don't think the security forces are doing well," said Hisham Sabah, 21, himself a policeman, as he stood at a checkpoint in Baghdad.

Violence has fallen sharply in the past 18 months, but militants have shown themselves deft at lying low and then springing devastating large-scale attacks.

"I don't dare to go to mosques after these bombings. It's going to happen again," said Salah Ibrahim, 36, as he hosed down the front yard of his menswear shop in the capital.

"Al Qaeda wants sectarian war ... and there is a deficiency in the security forces trying to stop them."

In February 2006, a bomb by suspected Sunni insurgents destroyed the golden dome of the al-Askari mosque in Samarra, one of Shi'ism's holiest sites, and triggered an orgy of tit-for-tat sectarian killing.

But the U.S. military and Iraqi officials say efforts by al Qaeda and other militants to reignite the slaughter of 2006 and 2007 have so far failed. They are much more worried about potential ethnic violence between majority Arabs and minority Kurds over land, power and oil in Iraq's north.

Many Iraqis also doubt Baghdad's Shi'ite and Sunnis have the stomach to the return to the dark days, when bodies bearing gunshot wounds and torture marks piled up in the streets.

"If we unite, al Qaeda won't be able to infiltrate us," said tool shop owner Falah Hassan Mohammad. (Writing by Tim Cocks; editing by Robin Pomeroy)