Bombs ripped through Sunni areas in Baghdad and surrounding areas Friday (local time), killing at least 76 people in the deadliest day in Iraq in more than eight months, officials said, as a spike in violence has raised fears the country could be on the path to a new round of sectarian bloodshed.
The attacks in Baghdad and surrounding areas pushed the three-day Iraqi death toll to 130, including Shiites at bus stops and outdoor markets in scenes reminiscent of the retaliatory attacks between the Islamic sects that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-2007.
Tensions have been intensifying since Sunnis began protesting what they say is mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government, including random detentions and neglect. The protests, which began in December, have largely been peaceful, but the number of attacks rose sharply after a deadly security crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the country's north on April 23.
Majority Shiites control the levers of power in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Wishing to rebuild the nation rather than revert to open warfare, they have largely restrained their militias over the past five years or so as Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida have targeted them with occasional large-scale attacks. An increase attacks against Sunni mosques has fed concerns about a return to retaliatory warfare.
The deadliest blast on Friday struck worshippers as they were leaving the main Sunni mosque in Baqouba, a former Sunni insurgent stronghold 60 kilometers (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad. Another explosion went off shortly afterward as people gathered to help the wounded, leaving at least 41 dead and 56 wounded, according to police and hospital officials. Bloodied bodies were strewn across the road outside the mosque.
Grocery store owner Hassan Alwan was among the worshippers who attended the Friday prayer in the al-Sariya mosque. He said he was getting ready to leave after Friday prayers when he heard the explosion, followed a few minutes later by another.
"We rushed into the street and saw people who were killed and wounded, and other worshippers asking for help," he said. "I do not where the country is headed amid these attacks against both Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq."
Baqouba was the site of some of the fiercest fighting between US forces and al-Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni insurgents during the war.
Later Friday, a roadside bomb exploded during a Sunni funeral procession in Madain, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Baghdad, killing eight mourners and wounding 11, police said. Two medical officials confirmed the casualties.
Another explosion struck a cafe in Fallujah, 65 kilometers (40 miles) west of Baghdad, killing two people and wounding nine, according to police and hospital officials.
In Baghdad, a bomb exploded near a shopping center during evening rush hour in the mainly Sunni neighborhood of Amariyah, killing 21 people and wounding 32. That was followed by another bomb in a commercial district in Dora, another Sunni neighborhood, which killed four people and wounded 22, according to officials.
All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to brief reporters.
Iraqis have grown used to a cycle of high-profile bombings
It was the deadliest day since Sept. 9 when 92 people were killed, according to an Associated Press tally.
The attacks on Sunnis came after two days of car bombs targeting Shiite areas in Baghdad and other attacks that left 21 people dead on Thursday and 33 on Wednesday.
The violence was the latest to hit a Sunni Muslim house of worship, a trend that has been on the rise. About 30 Sunni mosques have been attacked between mid-April to mid-May, killing more than 100 Sunni worshippers.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Iraqis attended the Friday funeral in a southern city of two Shiite fighters killed in Syria. Several such funerals have been held in recent months, the latest sign that that conflict has taken on a sectarian regional dimension.
In oil-rich Basra, mourners carried the coffin of Mohammed Aboud, whom they say was killed by sniper fire near the shrine of Sayida Zeinab outside the Syrian capital Damascus five days earlier.
They said Aboud went to Iran two months ago before flying to Syria in order to join a group of fighters protecting that country's Shiite shrines against attacks launched by the rebel Free Syrian Army.
For months, Iraqi Shiite fighters have trickled into Syria, where mostly Sunni rebels are fighting a regime dominated by a Shiite offshoot sect. Their relatives say the fighters are drawn by a sense of religious duty to protect the Sayida Zeinab shrine, which marks what is believed to be the grave of the granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Iraq remains officially neutral in the Syrian conflict.