A suicide car bomber has struck a Shiite funeral procession, killing 33 people as suspected al-Qaeda militants stepped up apparent efforts to provoke a counterattack by Shiite militias on Sunnis that could pave the way toward open sectarian warfare now that US troops have left Iraq.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah in southwestern Baghdad, but the bombing resembled previous attacks by al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Minutes after the explosion, gunmen opened fire at a checkpoint in Zafaraniyah, killing two police officers, police officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters.
More than 200 people have been killed in bombings and shootings since the US military withdrew from Iraq on Dec. 18. Many of the dead have been Shiite pilgrims and Iraqi police and soldiers.
Al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremist groups are thought to be exploiting sectarian tensions in the wake of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s efforts to marginalize the Sunni minority and cement his own grip on power.
Al-Maliki’s security forces have launched a widespread crackdown against Sunni politicians, detaining hundreds for alleged ties to the deposed Baath Party. Iraqi Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, fled to the safety of the Kurdish semi-autonomous area after he was charged with running death squads during the height of the war.
“The attacks are a reaction to political developments in Iraq,” said Mustafa Alani, a Geneva-based analyst and an Iraq expert with the Gulf Research Center. “The Sunnis feel the Shiites are squeezing them out of the government, and militants see the sectarian tensions in politics as a golden opportunity to reactivate their terror campaign.”
Hadi Jalo, a Baghdad-based political analyst said the attacks could be a provocation by Sunni militants, trying to draw government-backed Shiite militias back into a sectarian fight.
The car bomb on Friday killed 33 people, including eight policemen, according to police and officials at Zafaraniyah General Hospital. Sixty-five people were wounded, including 16 members of the security forces, they said.
Baghdad military spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi gave different figures in an interview with US-funded Al-Hurra television. He said 11 people were killed, including eight policemen who were protecting the funeral, and 45 were wounded. The Iraqi government often underplays the number of casualties in attacks.
The bombing came two days after an al-Qaeda spokesman threatened more attacks on the Shiite-led government, saying that “our explosives are at the door” of the Iraqi prime minister.
Speaking for al-Qaida’s Islamic State of Iraq Abu Mohammed al-Adnani told his followers not to be deceived by the number of the Iraqi government troops and their Shiite supporters, because “they are merely beetles and flies.” The audio message was posted on the group’s Web site.