BAGHDAD (AP) — A car bomb exploded near a bus station in Baghdad's main Shiite district Wednesday, the deadliest in a series of explosions that killed at least 33 people nationwide, officials said.
The bloodshed came amid growing tensions between the Shiite-led government and minority Sunnis following a deadly security crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in the country's north. Violence has ebbed sharply in Iraq, but a spike in attacks has raised fears about a return of the sectarian bloodshed that pushed the country to the brink of civil war in 2006-2007.
Majority Shiites control the levers of power in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Wishing to rebuild the nation rather than revert to open warfare, they have largely restrained their militias over the past five years or so as Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida have targeted them with occasional large-scale attacks. An increase attacks against Sunni mosques has fed concerns about a return to retaliatory warfare.
The day began violently when an explosives-laden car parked in the center of the ethnically divided city of Kirkuk at around 3:00 p.m., killing three civilians and wounding eight. An hour later, another parked car bomb exploded in the same area, killing two children and their parents as they were traveling in a car nearby, the city's deputy police chief Maj. Gen. Torhan Abdul-Rahman Youssef said.
Civilians joined forces with rescuers and policemen in searching for survivors in a partially damaged house after the first explosion. A wailing man was repeatedly trying to make his way through to the house, but he was prevented by the crowds. After the second attack, firefighters struggled to extinguish the blaze that engulfed the car with at least three charred bodies of a woman and two children visible.
Kirkuk is home to a mix of Arabs, Kurds and Turkomen, who all have competing claims to the oil-rich area. The Kurds want to incorporate it into their self-rule region in Iraq's north, but Arabs and Turkomen are opposed.
Hours later, several bombs struck within a 90-minute time frame as Iraqis were heading home from work or doing errands in mainly Shiite areas of Baghdad.
The deadliest was in the sprawling slum of Sadr City, an area that saw some of the fiercest fighting between Americans and Shiite militias during the peak of sectarian bloodshed. Police and hospital officials said a car bomb exploded near a crowded bus stop in the area, killing at least seven people and wounding 20. The blast also damaged several shops and cars in the area, which was sealed off by police.
A car bomb also struck firefighters minutes after they arrived on the scene to extinguish a burning car in the mainly Shiite Kazimiyah district in northern Baghdad, killing two and wounding nine others.
Amajad Hussein owns a clothing store and witnessed the blast.
"We ran from the place after the explosion, but we returned to see wounded firefighters on the ground and at least one fire engine in flames," he said. "Once again, the innocent people are paying the price for the security failures in this country."
At least six other bombings occurred in rapid succession near other bus stops or outdoor markets across the Iraqi capital, killing 15 people and wounding nearly 50 people.
In other violence, a suicide bomber on a motorcycle struck a police patrol, killing two officers and wounding eight other people in the town of Tarmiyah, 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Baghdad, a suicide bomber rammed his motorcycle into a police patrol, killing two policemen and wounding eight other people, a police official said.
Medical officials confirmed the casualty figures for all the attacks. All of the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release information.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attacks, but car and suicide bombings are a hallmark of al-Qaida's Iraq branch.
Insurgents routinely target Iraqi police, government officials and civilians in an attempt to undermine Iraq's government or to exacerbate political tension.
For the past five months, Sunnis have been protesting against what they claim is second-class treatment by the government and to demand an end to some laws they believe unfairly target them. Violence has flared on occasion between security forces and protesters.
But the matter came to a head April 23 after government troops moved against a camp of Sunni demonstrators in the town of Hawija, about 240 kilometers (150 miles) north of Baghdad. The clashes there sparked a wave of violence across Iraq that has killed more than 230 people, posing the most serious threat to Iraq's stability since the last American troops left in December 2011.
Under Saddam, Iraq's Sunni minority held a privileged position, while the Shiites were largely oppressed. But since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam, those dynamics have been flipped, and a Shiite-led government now holds power in Baghdad.
Authorities also raised the death toll from Tuesday's attack on a row of liquor stores in eastern Baghdad to 12 after one man died of his wounds in the hospital. Families gathered outside a Baghdad morgue to receive the bodies of their relatives. Several wooden caskets were loaded on vehicles as mourners chanted: "There is no God, but Allah."
Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.