August 10, 2009 / 7:49 AM / 10 years ago

Iraq bombs kill 42, fears of sectarian strife grow

MOSUL, Iraq (Reuters) - Bombs killed 42 people across Iraq on Monday, ripping through mostly Shi’ite areas and raising fears of a resurgence in sectarian violence just as politicians hope to reach out to old foes for January polls.

An Iraqi policeman stands guard at the site of a bomb attack in Baghdad August 10, 2009. REUTERS/Bassim Shati

The blasts are the latest of several major attacks targeting Shi’ites since U.S. troops withdrew from urban centres in June, boosting doubts about whether Iraq’s security forces, rebuilt from scratch after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, can cope alone.

Two truck bombs shattered the dawn calm when they exploded within minutes of each other in the mostly Shi’ite village of al-Khazna, 20 km (12 miles) east of Mosul in Iraq’s north, killing 30 people and wounding 155.

The blasts destroyed some 40 houses in the village, home to the small Shabak community, a sect of Kurdish origin. Distraught people stood around a massive crater left by one of the blasts as firemen picked through the debris searching for bodies.

“What have we done for terrorists to kill innocents in their sleep?” cried Umm Qasim, 35, her face covered in blood. She was sat in a truck and was holding her wounded son. The bodies of four relatives, including her husband and sister, lay nearby.

Speaking at a televised conference, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said violence may increase ahead of January polls.

“The coming election will witness increasing attempts to damage and violate security. They will try, in any way they can, to show that the political process is not stable,” he said.

KURD-ARAB, SUNNI-SHI’ITE DISPUTES

Bombs and shootings are reported almost daily in and around Mosul, capital of Nineveh province, where insurgents in Iraq have exploited disputes between Arabs and Kurds to remain strong even as their influence has waned elsewhere.

A row between the Arab-led government in Baghdad and the largely autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government in Iraq’s north over land and oil has come dangerously close to all out war.

Some analysts say insurgents want to trigger such a conflict to tear apart Iraq’s fragile political process just as some politicians struggle to form alliances with other sectarian and ethnic groups ahead of January’s parliamentary polls.

“The aim is to stall the political process and to bring it back to the era of sectarian conflict before the coming election,” said analyst and professor Hameed Fadhel.

Insurgents hide in remote, mountainous areas around Mosul, and there are fears they may gain support by styling themselves as an Arab bulwark against perceived Kurdish encroachment.

There are also fears the targeting of Shi’ites may re-ignite sectarian slaughter in Iraq, which has only abated in the last 18 months, during which time Sunni, Shi’ite, Kurd and Christian politicians have tried to hammer out election alliances.

Last week, a string of bombings targeting Shi’ites across Iraq killed 44 people. Sunni Islamist militants such as al Qaeda, who consider Shi’ites heretics, are often blamed.

ELECTION THUNDERBOLT

Maliki and his allies won major gains in provincial polls earlier this year, when they campaigned on a platform of increased security. A spike in violence ahead of national elections in January could derail his election plans.

In Baghdad, a car bomb and a roadside bomb targeting laborers queuing for work killed seven people in mostly Shi’ite areas of the capital’s southwest, a hospital source said. A later car bomb in the same area killed another two people.

In other Baghdad attacks, roadside bombs and a bomb stuck to a bus killed three people and wounded 34.

Monday’s attacks come barely a week after the government said it would remove blast walls from Baghdad’s main streets.

The national elections will be a key test for Iraq’s fledgling democracy and its security forces. Maliki is keen to assert Iraqi sovereignty after years of occupation.

“The vote will be a thunderbolt for those who do not want anything but dictatorship, sectarianism and bloodshed,” he said.

Slideshow (7 Images)

While violence has fallen sharply in the past 18 months, insurgents still manage to launch attacks in the face of largely untested Iraqi forces, who lack equipment and experience.

U.S. forces are due to leave Iraq by 2012 in accordance with a bilateral security pact between Washington and Baghdad.

Additional reporting by Mohammed Abbas, Muhanad Mohammed and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad; writing by Yara Bayoumy and Mohammed Abbas; editing by Jon Boyle

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