- Associated Press - Thursday, January 5, 2012

BAGHDAD A wave of bombings targeting Shiites in Iraq killed 72 people Thursday, deepening sectarian tensions that exploded just after the last U.S. troops left the country in mid-December.

The coordinated attacks targeting Shiites bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents linked to al Qaeda, although there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

The bombings began early in the morning when explosions struck two Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad, killing at least 27 people.

A few hours later, a suicide attack near Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of the capital, killed 45 Shiite pilgrims heading to the holy Shiite city of Karbala, a provincial official said.

The blasts occurred in the run-up to Arbaeen, a Shiite holy day marking the end of 40 days of mourning after the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite figure. During this time, Shiite pilgrims from across Iraq make their way to Karbala, south of Baghdad.

Baghdad military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi said the aim of the attacks is “to create turmoil among the Iraqi people.” He said it was too early to say who was behind the bombings.

The new violence will only exacerbate the country’s political crisis pitting politicians from the Shiite majority who dominate the government against the Sunni minority, which reigned supreme under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for the country’s top Sunni politician last month. The Sunni official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, is holed up in Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdish region in the north - effectively out of reach of state security forces.

Fears already were running high that the sectarian tensions could re-ignite Shiite-Sunni warfare that just a few years ago pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.

Thursday’s attacks were the deadliest in Baghdad since Dec. 22, when a series of blasts killed 69 people in mostly Shiite neighborhoods. An al Qaeda front group in Iraq claimed responsibility for those attacks.

The last U.S. soldiers left Iraq on Dec. 18, ending a nearly nine-year war. Iraqi leaders feared a resurgence of Sunni and Shiite militants and an increase in violence following the U.S. departure, a fear that is coming to be realized.

On Wednesday, attacks targeted the homes of police officers and a member of a government-allied militia. Those attacks, in the cities of Baqouba and Abu Ghraib outside Baghdad, killed four people, including two children, officials said.

Iraqi politicians remain deadlocked in a festering political crisis that threatens to re-ignite simmering sectarian tensions.

Mr. Maliki’s main political rival, the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc, is boycotting parliament sessions and Cabinet meetings to protest what they say are efforts by the government to consolidate power and marginalize them.

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