- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2012

BAGHDAD (AP) — Two car bombs exploded Monday evening in the Iraqi capital, killing at least 14 people and wounding dozens, according to authorities, raising already high concerns about an outbreak of a full-scale sectarian conflict.

The attacks appeared to be aimed at police officers as well as Shiite pilgrims making their way to the holy city of Karbala. The bombings were the latest in a wave of attacks primarily targeting Shiites that have killed more than 90 people in less than a week.

Police and hospital officials said one of the blasts struck near a police vehicle in the northeast Shiite neighborhood of al-Shaab, killing six people, including two policemen.

The second bomb went off in the western neighborhood of al-Muwasalat, which is largely Sunni. However, authorities say that blast, which killed eight, appeared to have targeted Shiite pilgrims.

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to reporters.

The evening explosions followed a roadside bomb blast in the morning in the Baghdad suburb of Awairij. Officials said that explosion killed two Shiite pilgrims walking to Karbala to commemorate Arbaeen, the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite figure.

The attacks came as Iraqi officials remained locked in a political crisis loaded with sectarian overtones that erupted just as the last American troops were leaving in December.

At the heart of the crisis is an effort by the Shiite-led government to try Iraq‘s top Sunni official on terrorism charges.

The official, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, said Monday that a demand he be turned over for trial in Baghdad is hurting efforts to end the country’s political crisis.

Mr. al-Hashemi is staying in the semiautonomous northern Kurdish region, out of reach of state security forces. He is accused by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government of running a hit squad that assassinated government officials — a charge he denies.

Iraq‘s Interior Ministry, which Mr. al-Maliki controls, on Sunday formally called on the Kurdish authorities to turn the vice president over for prosecution. They so far have not agreed to do so.

Mr. al-Hashemi criticized that demand during an interview in the Kurdish town of Qalachwalan, where he is staying as a guest of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.

“This shows that al-Maliki lacks credibility, because at the same time he is talking about defusing tensions, he is aggravating the situation by sending this request,” MR. al-Hashemi said. “This new move … will hurt efforts to defuse the current political tension.”

Mr. al-Hashemi repeated his concern that he cannot get a fair trial in Baghdad, where he said security forces linked to Mr. al-Maliki exert considerable influence over the justice system. Confessions by his accusers taken in Baghdad likely were coerced, he alleged.

Instead, he wants to have the case heard in the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk. There, he can get a fairer trial and his security will be ensured, he said.

Shortly before Mr. al-Hashemi’s arrest warrant was issued, state-run television aired what it said were confessions by men said to be working as his bodyguards. They said they killed Baghdad police officers and officials working in the Health and Foreign ministries in exchange for payoffs from Mr. al-Hashemi.

The hits allegedly began during the height of the war in 2006 and 2007, when widespread violence between Iraq‘s Sunnis and Shiites pitted neighbors against neighbors and killed thousands of Iraqi civilians.

Also Monday, an al Qaeda front group in Iraq claimed responsibility for a November bombing inside Baghdad’s Green Zone, a heavily protected area in the center of the Iraqi capital. Mr. al-Maliki has described the Green Zone bombing near parliament as an assassination attempt against him.

The claim of responsibility by the Sunni militants said the suicide attack was targeting “the head of the Iranian project in Iraq,” an apparent reference to Mr. al-Maliki and the ties of Iraqi Shiites to Shiite-majority Iran. The statement said the attack failed because the car exploded prematurely.

Yahya Barzanji reported from Qalachwalan. Sameer N. Yacoub, Mazin Yahya and Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad contributed to this article.

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