Baghdad - Bombs ripped through 10 Iraqi cities on Thursday, killing at least 30 people and shattering a month of relative calm. Minority lawmakers decried the violence as a tragic but inevitable result of the Shi’a-led government's attempts to dominate Iraqi politics.
Despite simmering sectarian tensions, a lull in deadly attacks since mid-March led many to hope Iraq had turned a corner and away from widespread violence. That proved overly optimistic as at least 14 bombs and mortar shells exploded across 10 cities over three hours in the morning. At least 117 people were wounded, police said.
“What crime have we committed? How long will such violence continue?” wailed a woman, who would identify herself only by her nickname of Um Ali, after watching a car explode outside an apartment building in western Baghdad.
“This is security in Iraq,” a man nearby muttered sarcastically as he inspected damage to his car.
Six of the bombings struck at security forces and government officials - frequent targets for insurgents.
In Baghdad alone, 12 people were killed, mostly in Shi’a neighbourhoods. The other attacks hit northern Iraqi cities - from Samarra, where a 2006 mosque bombing touched off the worst of the insurgency, to the ethnically mixed city to Kirkuk, to Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Baghdad military command spokesperson Colonel Dhia al-Wakeel said they resembled those carried out by al-Qaeda.
Sunni and Kurdish lawmakers said the bombings likely were the result of a months-long political impasse that has all but paralysed Iraq's government since the US military withdrawal at the end of last year. They said ongoing bickering over a stalled power-sharing agreement with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’a, has opened the door to violence.
“The deterioration in the security situation is a result of the differences between the political powers,” said Sunni lawmaker Hamid al-Mutlaq, a member of parliament's defence and security committee. He urged the government to strike a power agreement quickly with competing parties.
“And if they fail, they have to acknowledge that they can't lead the country and quit,” said al-Mutlaq, a frequent al-Maliki critic.
Although political unrest appears to serve as a conduit for insurgents seeking to undermine al-Maliki's government, it's unlikely the bombers were motivated by a desire to create a new power-sharing agreement, said Juan R. I. Cole, a history professor and Middle East expert at the University of Michigan.
“Right now you have a small but significant number of people who are absolutely unreconciled to the idea of a new Iraq. And that is where you get terrorism,” Cole said. “They don't believe in Iraq's parliament - they are trying to undermine it.”
Although the level of violence is nowhere near where it was just five years ago, when Iraq threatened to descend into civil war, deadly attacks are common nationwide.
While there is no indication that Iraq will return to the brink of war, without political harmony the country is more likely to limp along for years with occasional wide-scale violence.
Iraq's political chasm has pitted al-Maliki against the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya coalition, which won the most seats in 2010 parliamentary elections but was outplayed in back-room negotiating over the right to seat the government.
Iraqiya complains it is being shut out of power, and briefly boycotted the government earlier this year after an arrest warrant was issued against Sunni Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi on terror charges. Iraqiya and al-Hashemi called the charges an example of al-Maliki's flexing his authority for political gain.
But recently, the gap between al-Maliki and his critics began to grow when two groups he successfully courted to keep his job - Kurds and the hardline Shi’a followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr - threatened to defect.
Upset about Baghdad's demand to keep oil deals with ExxonMobil for itself, Iraqi Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani has compared the Iraqi central government to a dictatorship.
On Thursday, as Baghdad announced it was blacklisting Exxon from bidding in a lucrative energy action next month because of its deals in the Kurdish region, Barzani was meeting with al-Hashemi in Istanbul, where the vice-president is visiting in exile. The meeting was widely viewed as an opportunity to create a new coalition against al-Maliki.
Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman said he hoped the disputes can be resolved without a government breakdown, but that withdrawing Kurdish support from al-Maliki “could be possible”. He also blamed Thursday's attacks, in part, on the impasse.
“Both political and security stability are linked to each other,” Othman said. “When politicians are focused on their disputes, that gives terrorists an opportunity to take advantage of the situation.”
Meanwhile, observers note an unlikely but politically convenient alliance between the Kurds and the Sadrists that could pull more support from al-Maliki.
Last week, the government charged two officials on Iraq's independent electoral commission with corruption in what critics called a power grab by al-Maliki. Barzani and Sadrist lawmaker Baha al-Araji have made no secret of their mutual distaste for the arrests. Parliament on Thursday voted to keep the election commission in place for three months beyond the current term, which is expiring, so that new candidates can be selected.
In an interview on Thursday, Sadrist lawmaker Dhiya al-Asadi said there has been no move yet to discuss a new coalition with Iraqiya or the Kurds, but “in a democratic system everything is possible”.
“If they submit real and logical reasons for withdrawing their confidence in the government, then our view might follow in the same direction,” al-Asadi said.
It is hard to imagine, however, a detente among all the disparate groups, which still grapple with long-standing sectarian and ethnic tensions over everything from disputed land to religious observances.
Abdullah Hussein, a political adviser to al-Maliki, called such a coalition an “impossible scenario” and predicted that the world community is not ready to embrace a new government and the chaos it likely would bring.
Hussein stopped short of linking the political impasse to Thursday's bombings, describing them as “definitely a terrorist act” that war-weary Iraqis will reject.
He called the attacks “a result of the extremist agenda of al-Qaeda or other armed groups to serve their goals in Iraq”, and said they have been weakened. - Sapa-AP