Suicide attackers and car bombs hit cities across Iraq on Monday, killing at least 60 people in apparently coordinated assaults authorities blamed on al Qaeda affiliates intent on destabilizing the government.
The attacks punctured the recent calm of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and underscored the continued fragility of Iraq's security as U.S. troops prepare to leave more than eight years after the invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.
In the worst assault, a roadside bomb followed by a car bomb targeting police killed at least 37 people in Kut, a mainly Shi'ite Muslim city 150 km (95 miles) southeast of the capital Baghdad, police and health officials said.
The blasts shattered facades of shops and homes in Kut. Firefighters picked through wreckage and blood was spattered across the street near the crumpled remains of the car bomb.
Dhiyauddin Jalil, a director of the local provincial health department, said more than 68 people were wounded in the Kut blasts and doctors in the city's main hospital said they were struggling to treat casualties, many with severe burns.
"These attacks... are trying to influence the security situation and undermine confidence in the security forces," said Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Baghdad security operations, blaming al Qaeda-linked groups.
Iraq's violence has subsided since the height of sectarian slaughter in 2006-07. But militants are testing local security forces just as Baghdad and Washington debate whether U.S. troops should stay past a year-end deadline for withdrawal.
The al Qaeda affiliate the Islamist State of Iraq has been weakened by the loss of top commanders, and Iraq says its security forces can handle internal threats. But Sunni Muslim Islamists and Shi'ite militia are still capable of carrying out devastating attacks.
Kut had been relatively quiet since August last year when a suicide bomber killed 30 policemen and destroyed a police station as the U.S. military ended combat operations in Iraq.
Dozens more were killed or wounded on Monday in bombings and attacks in other cities north and south of the capital.
At least eight people were killed and 14 wounded when a suicide car bomber attacked a municipality building in Khan Bani Saad, about 30 km (20 miles) northeast of Baghdad, in the province of Diyala, two police sources said on Monday.
NORTH AND SOUTH
Two suicide bombers attacked an Iraqi counter-terrorism unit in Tikrit, 150 km (95 miles) north of Baghdad, killing at least two policemen and wounding six in a failed attempt to free al Qaeda prisoners, a police official said.
One attacker detonated his suicide vest hoping to kill a high-ranking counter-terrorism officer, and the other was shot dead during the attack, said Captain Jassim al-Jibouri, an officer with the Tikrit counter terrorism unit.
In the southern holy Shi'ite city of Najaf, at least six people were killed and up to 79 more wounded when two car bombs exploded, health authorities said. Police captain Hadi al-Najafi in Najaf said the bombs targeted a police building.
"There was a roll call for the police in the early morning. The first killed and wounded policemen and as the ambulances came the second car exploded," said Mussab Mohammad, a local resident who witnessed the attacks.
At least four people were killed and 41 others wounded near Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad, when a car bomb exploded near a police station, a local health department spokesman said.
One man was killed and 12 people were wounded in simultaneous car and motorbike bombings in the center of the northeastern city of Kirkuk, police sources said.
In al-Wajehiya, another town in Diyala province, a bomb in a parked car went off near a government building, killing one policeman and wounding 13, a police source said.
U.S. soldiers are scheduled to leave by the end of the year. But Iraqi and U.S. officials are discussing whether some stay on as trainers after 2011 to help local armed forces fill in capability gaps.
Baghdad says it needs training to build up its conventional air force and navy. But talks to keep American troops on past the year-end withdrawal date could be complicated over the sensitive issue of immunity for U.S. soldiers on Iraqi soil.