BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Double car bombs targeting Shi‘ite pilgrims in Baghdad killed at least 26 people on Saturday in the latest attacks by insurgents trying to tip Iraq back into widespread sectarian violence.
It was the third day of bombings to strike Shi‘ite pilgrims this week. On Wednesday, a wave of bombings killed more than 75 people across Iraq in the bloodiest violence since U.S. troops left the country in December.
Saturday’s car bombs exploded near Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district, scattering body parts and clothing along a route used by pilgrims marking the anniversary of the death of Shi‘ite imam Moussa al-Kadhim, a great-grandson of Prophet Mohammad.
“We rushed to the scene, there were dismembered bodies, shoes, plastic bags, women’s robes left all around, and people were screaming everywhere,” said Ahmed Maati, a policeman working nearby.
Television footage showed the charred, twisted shell of one of the vehicles used in the attacks sitting on a main Baghdad road, with other burned-out vehicles nearby.
Attacks on Shi‘ite targets are reviving fears Iraq risks slipping back into the broad sectarian slaughter of its recent past, especially as the Shi‘ite, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish parties that make up its fragile government feud over sharing power.
With security around Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district very tight for the religious festival, one bomber on Saturday posed as a taxi driver and picked up pilgrims to access the area. At least 14 were killed in that initial blast and more than 30 wounded, authorities said.
A second car bomb exploded nearby and killed at least 12 more and wounded 28, police and hospital sources said.
Al Qaeda’s Iraq affiliate, Islamic State of Iraq or ISI, has claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks, according to U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group, which follows jihadist websites.
Iraq’s al Qaeda wing was weakened by its long war with U.S. and Iraqi security forces, but since the last American troops left in December, the group and other Sunni Islamist insurgents have carried out a major attack about once a month this year.
Al Qaeda in Iraq often hits Shi‘ite targets in an attempt to stir up the kind of sectarian tensions that drove Iraq to the edge of civil war and killed tens of thousands of people in 2006-2007. They also target security forces to try to show the Shi‘ite-led government is failing to stamp out violence.
Earlier this month, ISI claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing on a major Shi‘ite religious office in Baghdad, which killed 26 people, wounded 190 and evoked memories of the darker days of the country’s conflict.
The violence also risks escalating tensions among the Shi‘ite, Sunni Muslim and Kurdish blocks in the government as Shi‘ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki fends off attempts at a vote of no confidence against him.
Many Sunni Iraqis, who once dominated the Shi‘ite majority under dictator Saddam Hussein, fear Maliki is consolidating his power at their expense by ignoring pledges to share power among the country’s sectarian and ethnic mix.
Kurdistan, an autonomous Kurdish area in northern Iraq reliant on the central government’s budget, is also chaffing against Maliki’s authority in a long-running feud for control over oil and areas disputed by ethnic Kurds and Iraqi Arabs.
Reporting by Raheem Salman in Baghdad; writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Alessandra Rizzo