Muhanad Mohammed & Waleed Ibrahim
Baghdad. Six bombs exploded within minutes near Shiite mosques across the Iraqi capital on Friday, killing at least 26 people and wounding scores of others, police and witnesses said.
The blasts, which appeared to target Shiite Muslims taking part in Friday prayers, shattered a period of relative calm in Baghdad, raising to at least 303 Iraqis killed in what has been one of the least deadly months in Iraq for both Iraqi civilians and US troops since the war began. Seven US troops have been killed — the lowest monthly total since the war started in March 2003, according to an AP tally.
In the worst attack, a car bomb struck people praying outside a crowded mosque in northern Baghdad’s Shaab district, killing at least 21 people and wounding 35.
“I saw 15 martyrs,” one Iraqi said at the mosque.
US officials say Al Qaeda and other Sunni insurgent groups are trying to reignite the sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that brought Iraq to the brink of all-out civil war in 2006 and 2007.
Shiite religious gatherings in the past have been targets of Sunni Islamist Al Qaeda, which regards Shiites as heretics.
US combat forces withdrew from Iraqi cities last month, raising fears among many Iraqis that their own forces are not yet ready to handle security.
US and Iraqi officials expect militant attacks to increase in the run-up to national elections expected in January, in which Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is hoping to capitalize on security gains to present himself as a nationalist who brought stability to Iraq.
“I lay the blame for these blasts on the government and Baghdad security officials,” said Raad Souar, a politician close to the movement of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. “The reason for the high number of casualties is due to the weakness of security in Baghdad.”
Also on Friday, Britain’s troop presence in Iraq formally concluded, ending six years of controversial military involvement in the country that began with the US-led invasion.
Under a deal between Baghdad and London signed last year, the last of Britain’s forces left this week ahead of the July 31 deadline for their withdrawal. Under a timeline set by President Barack Obama, all US combat troops will withdraw from Iraq by August 2010.
London’s troop numbers in the campaign were the second largest, peaking at 46,000 in March and April 2003. Britain last year decided to switch its military emphasis to the struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Friday’s withdrawal deadline comes just a day after Britain launched an inquiry into its role in the war. The probe will quiz key decision-makers, including ex-prime minister Tony Blair and be free to criticize government decisions.