BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A series of bombs targeting Shi’ite areas rocked Baghdad Friday, killing at least 56 people in an apparent backlash after Iraq touted a series of blows against a weakened al Qaeda-led insurgency.
Eight people were also killed by bombs in the Sunni west of the country, less than a week after Iraqi security forces backed by U.S. troops killed al Qaeda’s top two leaders in Iraq.
Thirteen blasts hit different areas of the Iraqi capital around the time of Muslim prayers, mostly near Shi’ite mosques and at a marketplace, an Interior Ministry source said.
Three bombs targeted worshippers outside the main office of fiery anti-American Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the crowded Sadr City slum. Those blasts killed 39 people and wounded 56, generating denunciations of the security forces. Some youths threw stones at an Iraqi army vehicle.
“Why do they always target us? We are peaceful people. We come to pray and then go on our way,” one survivor told Reuters Television in an angry tirade, without identifying himself.
The attacks, one of Iraq’s deadliest in recent weeks, also wounded around 120 people and signaled the possibility of a rise in violence after a March national election produced no clear winner and left a power vacuum for insurgents to exploit.
“Targeting prayers in areas with a certain majority,” Baghdad security spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said, referring to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim majority, “is a revenge for the losses suffered by al Qaeda.
“We expect such terrorist acts to continue.”
Last Sunday, al Qaeda’s leader in Iraq, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of its affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, were killed in a raid in a rural area northwest of Baghdad by Iraqi and U.S. forces.
The strike against al Qaeda’s Iraq leadership has been accompanied by a string of smaller battlefield victories in which more than 300 suspected al Qaeda operatives have been arrested and 19 killed, according to U.S. and Iraqi officials.
In another of Friday’s attacks, 11 were killed by a car bomb and a suicide bomber near a Shi’ite mosque in al-Ameen district in southeastern Baghdad. A car bomb killed five near a mosque in the northwestern neighborhood of al-Hurriya, police said.
“These are acts of revenge that are intended to send a message to the Iraqi government and the world that al Qaeda’s existence will not be affected by the killing of specific leaders,” Iraqi political analyst Hameed Fadhel of Baghdad University said. “They want to say that they are still here.”
Several hours earlier, seven members of one family were killed in a series of blasts in Khalidiya, a town in Iraq’s turbulent western province of Anbar 83 km (50 miles) west of Baghdad. One police officer died trying to defuse a bomb.
The mainly Sunni province of Anbar has been relatively quiet since tribal leaders in 2006 started turning on Sunni Islamist groups such as al Qaeda who had once dominated it. But insurgents continue to operate in the vast desert province.
“At four in the morning, I heard a movement behind my house and found some barrels nearby, so I took my family out of the house,” said Fadhil Salih, a judge at the Khalidiya courthouse.
“An hour later the bomb went off and destroyed my house but, thank God, there were no casualties in my family,” Salih said.
At least 10 people were wounded, including two policemen. Authorities imposed a vehicle ban after the blasts.
Iraqi officials say they have been expecting revenge attacks after the victories against al Qaeda in the past month.
Overall violence in Iraq has fallen in the last two years as the sectarian bloodshed that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion faded, but tensions were stoked by last month’s election.
Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s bloc came a close second to a cross-sectarian alliance heavily backed by the once-dominant minority Sunni community.
But Maliki’s allies are attempting to capture the lead through a recount of votes in Baghdad and through court challenges to winning candidates because of their alleged ties to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party.
Additional reporting by Fadhel al-Badrani in Falluja and Khalid al-Ansary and Reuters Television in Baghdad; Writing by Rania El Gamal; Editing by Michael Christie