(Reuters) – Bombs exploded in predominantly Shi’ite Muslim districts of the Iraqi capital and in the southern city of Hilla on Tuesday, killing at least 49 people, police and hospital sources said.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for any of the attacks, but Shi’ites are often targeted by Sunni Islamist insurgents who have been regaining ground in Iraq over the past year and overran several towns in recent weeks.
The deadliest attacks on Tuesday occurred in and around the mainly Shi’ite city of Hilla, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, where 35 people were killed in seven car bomb explosions inside the city itself and the nearby towns of Haswa, Mahaweel and Mussayab.
“I was sitting in my shop when suddenly a powerful blast smashed the front window,” said Ali Mousa, whose mini-market was near the site of one bomb in central Hilla. “I went out to see what happened and saw bodies on the ground and wounded people bleeding and shouting for help”.
At least 90 people were wounded in the blasts, which Hilla police chief, Major General Abbas Abid blamed on groups linked to al Qaeda.
“Al Qaeda terrorist groups stand behind today’s attacks in Hilla to confuse the security forces and cause high casualties among civilians,” he said. “They are criminals and they never get enough of innocent blood”.
Last year was Iraq’s bloodiest since sectarian violence began to abate in 2008.
Fourteen people were killed in explosions in mainly Shi’ite districts of Baghdad. In one, a bomb inside a parked vehicle exploded near a bus station in the Bayaa district, killing five people, the sources said. There were also blasts in the Amil, Ilam and Shurta districts.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has appealed for international support and weapons to fight al Qaeda, but critics say his policies towards Iraq’s once dominant Sunni minority are at least partly to blame for reviving the insurgency.
Many Sunnis in Iraq resent Maliki and feel they have been sidelined by the Shi’ite-led political order that took shape following the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The city of Falluja in Iraq’s Sunni-dominated province of Anbar has been under siege by the army since early January, when militants overran it after security forces cleared a site where Sunnis were protesting against Maliki.
In northern Iraq, troops are fighting to wrest control of Sulaiman Pek from Sunni militants who took over parts of the town last Thursday and raised the black flag of the Islamic state in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over it.
ISIL is active in the civil war in neighboring Syria and is also present in the city of Falluja, along with other Sunni militants and anti-government fighters.