MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Bombs in Baghdad and northern Iraq killed at least 50 people on Thursday, police said, underscoring doubts about local forces’ ability to keep Iraqis safe after U.S. troops pulled out of city centers.
The attacks in the north, where tensions between Arabs and Kurds threaten to flare into Iraq’s next conflict, and in the capital appeared to be part of an attempt by insurgents to reignite sectarian fighting following the partial U.S. pullback.
Two suicide bombings in Tal Afar, a town in volatile Nineveh province that is mainly home to minority Turkmen of the Shi’ite Muslim faith, killed 34 people and wounded 60, police said.
One suicide bomber detonated an explosives vest in the historic center of the town, 420 km (260 miles) northwest of Baghdad, followed by another suicide attack just as people responded to the first blast.
Nineveh and its main city Mosul have suffered a steady drumbeat of attacks since June 30, when U.S. troops withdrew from urban centers. It is an area where groups like al Qaeda have taken advantage of tensions between Sunni Arabs, ethnic Kurds and other minorities to sustain a stubborn insurgency.
In Baghdad, seven people were killed and 20 wounded by two bombs in a market in Sadr City, a poor, Shi’ite Muslim area. Later in the day, two roadside bombs targeting a police patrol near a market in another Shi’ite area in the north of the capital killed nine people and wounded 35, police said.
The worst of the bloodshed between Shi’ites and Sunnis set off by the 2003 U.S. invasion has faded, but the continuing violence reflects lingering divisions among Iraqis, and underscores the fragility of security gains.
Mistrust is still strong between the Sunni Muslims who dominated Iraq under Saddam Hussein and majority Shi’ites.
In the city of Baiji north of Baghdad on Thursday, Iraqi police clashed in a violent gunfight with a U.S.-backed Sunni neighborhood guard unit, and ended up arresting around 15, Iraqi police and U.S. military officials said.
The reasons for the incident were unclear, but the Shi’ite-led government is suspicious of the guards, known as Awakening Councils, because many of them used to be allies of al Qaeda until they decided to join up with U.S. forces.
Revenge killings are the key, analysts say, to figuring out whether the violence still afflicting Iraq will rekindle the broader sectarian slaughter of 2006/07.
That may be happening in Kirkuk, another volatile northern town on the frontier between Arab and Kurdish Iraq, where the last three bombings were followed last week by six doorstep assassinations with silenced weapons, the police chief said.
“Creating problems between the ethnic groups is the last chance for (the insurgents). They want civil war,” Major-General Jamal Taher Bakr said in an interview in Wednesday.
“It starts with bombs, now they move to shootings. We don’t know if it was revenge shootings for the bombs. We are still making investigations,” he said.
Mosul, meanwhile, is a city under siege, its buildings pockmarked by shrapnel from explosions and its streets littered with rubble. On Wednesday evening, two car bombs exploded there within minutes of each other, killing 14 people and wounding 33.
The city is a frontline between the Shi’ite Arab-led government in Baghdad and Kurds, who want to extend their semi-autonomous northern region and take greater control of oil.
Atheel al-Nujaifi, a Sunni Arab who took over as governor earlier this year to protests from many of Mosul’s Kurds, warned of greater violence to come.
“There are many parties trying to incite chaos following the withdrawal of U.S. troops ... It is not in their interest to see stability and security,” he said.
Tensions in one realm were potentially reduced on Thursday when U.S. forces released five Iranians described by Tehran as diplomats but accused by Washington of arming and funding Shi’ite militias in Iraq and using them to target U.S. troops and Sunni opponents.
Iranian state television said three of the men were diplomats detained in a 2007 U.S. raid in Iraq’s northern city of Arbil, while the rest were “two other Iranians kidnapped elsewhere in Iraq by the U.S. occupation troops.”
The men were handed over first to Iraqi authorities and then released into the care of Iranian embassy staff, it reported.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Muhanad Mohammed and Khalid al-Ansary in Baghdad, Tim Cocks and Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, Hossein Jaseb in Tehran; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Michael Roddy