An al-Qaida front group in Iraq has claimed responsibility for the wave of attacks that ripped through markets, cafes and government buildings in Baghdad on a single day last week, killing 69 people and raising new worries about the country's path.
The coordinated attacks struck a dozen mostly Shiite neighborhoods on Thursday in the first major bloodshed since U.S. troops completed a full withdrawal this month after nearly nine years of war. They also coincided with a government crisis that has again strained ties between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites to the breaking point, tearing at the same fault line that nearly pushed Iraq into all-out civil war several years ago.
The claim of responsibility made no mention of the U.S. withdrawal. Instead, it focused its rage on the country's Shiite-dominated leadership, which Sunni insurgents have battled since it came to power as a result of the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
"The series of special invasions (was) launched ... to support the weak Sunnis in the prisons of the apostates and to retaliate for the captives who were executed," said the statement in the name of the Islamic State of Iraq.
According to the SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S.-based organization that monitors jihadist Web traffic, the claim of responsibility was posted late Monday on militant websites.
The group said the attacks were proof that they "know where and when to strike and the mujahedeen will never stand with their hands tied while the pernicious Iranian project shows its ugly face."
The remark was in reference to accusations by Sunni militants that Iraq's Shiite-dominated government has allied itself too closely with neighboring Shiite power Iran, a bitter enemy of Iraq under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The Baghdad military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said al-Qaida in Iraq _ no longer focused on fighting U.S. forces _ is hoping to take advantage of the current political tension to re-ignite sectarian warfare.
"It has become a clear scheme to draw Iraq into a sectarian war again," al-Moussawi said. "Al-Qaida in Iraq played a major role in 2005 and 2006 in pushing the county into a civil war and they succeeded."
On Tuesday morning, a car bomb exploded near a police station in the town of Hawija, 150 miles (240 kilometers) north of Baghdad, killing two civilians and injuring another, said Kirkuk police commander Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir.
U.S. and some Iraqi officials have warned of a resurgence of Sunni and Shiite militants and an increase in violence after the U.S. troop withdrawal.
Along with the security challenge, Iraq is facing an increase in political tension as Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, is engaged in a showdown with the top Sunni political leader in the country.
Al-Maliki's government has issued an arrest warrant for Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on charges that he ran hit squads against government officials.
Al-Hashemi has denied the charges and said they are politically motivated.
Associated Press writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.