- Associated Press - Thursday, January 27, 2011

BAGHDAD — A car bomb exploded outside a funeral tent Thursday in a mainly Shiite area of Baghdad, killing at least 48 people — the latest in a wave of attacks that has triggered fury over the government’s inability to stop the bloodshed.

As ambulances raced to the scene and Iraqi helicopters buzzed overhead, young men enraged over the security lapse pelted Iraqi forces with sticks and stones, prompting skirmishes.

The violence over the past week and a half has mainly targeted the majority Shiite community and Iraqi security forces, posing a major challenge for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his fragile coalition government that was seated last month.

Some lawmakers and city officials said insurgents were likely trying to undermine the government ahead of an Arab League summit to be held in March in Baghdad. The Iraqi leadership had campaigned to host the two-day meeting to tout security improvements and mend frayed ties with its Arab neighbors.

“The terrorists are carrying out these bombings now because they are angry over the successful formation of a new government and they want to try to foil the Arab Summit,” said Kamil Nassir al-Zaidi, the head of the Baghdad provincial council. “But the summit will be held as scheduled despite all these bombings.”

Anger over Thursday’s attack in the former Shiite militia stronghold of Shula stemmed from the fact the booby-trapped car had been parked just several yards (meters) from one end of the long, hangar-like tent.

Associated Press Television News footage showed broken plastic chairs overturned inside the tent. Broken tea cups and other debris covered the patterned rugs on the floor. A mourner held up a torn, blood-soaked dishdasha, traditional dress worn by Iraqi men.

At least 48 people were killed and 121 wounded, according to police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to release the information. Several nearby cars and houses were damaged.

Hours later, troops fired in the air to disperse a crowd gathered for a demonstration to demand better protection, and some protesters set tires on fire. Security forces imposed a curfew in Shula, prompting complaints from some residents that they were unable to visit wounded loved ones who were taken to hospitals elsewhere in the capital.

A witness who identified himself as Abu Ahmed al-Saiedi said mourners had been allowed to park near the funeral tent because most people in the neighborhood knew each other.

“I blame the neighborhood security officials for letting this car bomb enter the area without being checked,” said al-Saiedi, who was hit in the arm with shrapnel. “When I saw people hurling stones at the security forces, I said to myself, ‘They deserve that.’”

Iraqis have become used to high-profile bombings, often followed by long periods of calm.

But the recent uptick in violence, with more than 200 people killed in near-daily attacks since Jan. 18, has raised new concern about the readiness of the Iraqis to take over their own security.

Al-Maliki formed his new Cabinet in late December after months of bitter haggling with other parties following inconclusive March 7 elections. But he has not yet filled key security posts, including leaders for the defense, interior and national security ministries.

Another important decision facing al-Maliki: whether to ask the U.S. military to stay beyond the end of the year.

In his State of the Union address Tuesday, President Barack Obama appeared to close the door on keeping any significant U.S. military presence in Iraq beyond that deadline.

“This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq,” Obama said.

Four other Iraqis were killed Thursday in separate bombings targeting Iraqi troops and an electricity official in Baghdad. The latest was a roadside bomb that killed a policeman at about 7 p.m. in the mainly Sunni area of Dora, officials said.

Hakim al-Zamili, a Shiite lawmaker who is loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said Iraqi security forces have become complacent since violence ebbed in 2008 after a series of U.S.-backed offensives. He also agreed that the likely motive was to upstage the planned Arab Summit.

“The Iraqi security forces have become lax after achieving a victory on terrorism,” he said.

The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group, claimed responsibility for three bombings north of Baghdad last week.

The U.S. military declined to place blame on a single group, saying there are a number of different terrorist elements with varying objectives.

“As these attacks so vividly remind us, there remains a very real threat to Iraqis from violent extremists,” Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, a military spokesman, said in an e-mail. “The attacks of the past days remind us just how critical it is for the Iraqi government to maintain pressure on the networks.”

Associated Press writers Saad Abdul-Kadir and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.

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