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    Wave of militant attacks, bombings kills 55, wounds more than 200 in a dozen Iraqi cities


    An Iraqi firefighter hoses down a burned bus after a car bomb attack in Kirkuk, 290 kilometers (180 miles) north of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Feb. 23, 2012. A rapid series of attacks spread over a wide swath of Iraqi territory killed and injured dozens of Iraqis on Thursday, targeting mostly security forces. (AP Photo/Emad Matti)

    BAGHDAD - Bombs and deadly shootings relentlessly pounded Iraqis on Thursday, killing at least 55 people and wounding more than 225 in a widespread wave of violence the government called a "frantic attempt" by insurgents to prove the country will never be stable.

    Cars burned, school desks were bloodied, bandaged victims lay in hospitals and pools of blood were left with the wounded on floors of bombed businesses after the daylong series of attacks in 12 cities across Iraq.

    The assault demonstrated how vulnerable the country remains two months after the American military left and put the onus for protecting the public solely in the hands of Iraqi forces.

    "There was no reason for this bomb. A primary school is here, students came to study and people came to work," Karim Abbas woefully said in the town of Musayyib, where he saw a car bomb parked near an elementary school kill three people and wound 73. Most of the injured in the town, located about 40 miles (60 kilometres) south of Baghdad, were schoolchildren.

    Other Iraqis, fed up with the continued violence, furiously blamed security forces for letting it happen.

    "We want to know: What were the thousands of policemen and soldiers in Baghdad doing today while the terrorists were roaming the city and spreading violence?" said Ahmed al-Tamimi, who was working at an Education Ministry office a block away from a restaurant bombed in the Shiite neighbourhood of Kazimiyah in northern Baghdad.

    He described a hellish scene of human flesh and pools of blood at the restaurant, where another car bomb killed nine people and wounded 19.

    No group immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, but car bombs are a hallmark of al-Qaida. The Iraqi Interior Ministry blamed al-Qaida insurgents for the violence.

    "These attacks are part of frantic attempts by the terrorist groups to show that the security situation in Iraq will not ever be stable," the ministry said in a statement. "These attacks are part of al-Qaida efforts to deliver a message to its supporters that al-Qaida is still operating inside Iraq, and it has the ability to launch strikes inside the capital or other cities and towns."

    Fifteen of the day's 26 attacks targeted security forces on patrols, at checkpoints and around government and political offices. Six policemen were killed at their checkpoint in northern Baghdad in a pre-dawn drive-by shooting. A suicide bomber blew up his car in front of a police station in Baqouba, 35 miles (60 kilometres) northeast of Baghdad, killing two and wounding eight.

    Such violence undermines the public's confidence in the ability of their policemen and soldiers to protect everyday citizens, and discourages people from joining or helping the security forces.

    All the casualties were reported by local police and hospital officials in the cities where the attacks took place. Most spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

    A statement by the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political party, the main opposition bloc to the Shiite-led government, called on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to accept full responsibility for protecting the public.

    "If the government fails to do so, then it should resign and the parliament should choose a government capable of confronting the terrorists and impose security and stability in all over Iraq," the statement said.

    Even months before U.S. troops left, extremists launched large-scale attacks every few weeks. The violence now is nowhere as frequent as it was during the tit-for-tat sectarian fighting that almost pushed Iraq into civil war a few years ago. But the attacks appear to be more deadly than they were before American military's withdrawal in late December.

    Days after the American military left, a Dec. 22 wave of bombs targeting Shiites killed at least 69 people. That happened twice more over the following three weeks, killing 78 and 53, respectively. Al-Qaida was blamed for them all.

    Until the U.S. troops left, the most sweeping attack of 2011 was in August in a multi-city bombing spree that killed 63.

    The renewed potency of the violence points to a dangerous security gap that Iraqi forces have not yet solved without the help of the U.S. military: Gathering intelligence on militants plotting attacks.

    Ongoing negotiations between the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and the Iraqi government are addressing, in part, how to supply security forces with enough equipment and training to conduct surveillance and reconnaissance operations.

    Turbulence in Iraq's political system also has fueled sectarian tensions, but there's no indication so far that it's led to violence. The day after the U.S. withdrawal on Dec. 18, the Shiite-led government announced an arrest warrant against Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni politician, Vice-President Tariq al-Hashemi, on charges he commandeered death squads against security forces and government officials.

    Al-Hashemi has denied the charges he calls politically motivated, and many Iraqis fear the case will bring the return of widespread sectarian violence. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad alluded to that in a statement Thursday calling the terrorist attacks "heinous" acts that "tear at the fabric of Iraqi unity." Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi condemned the attacks as an attempt "at igniting strife among Iraqi people."

    Yet in an encouraging sign that Iraq's government is able to function, Parliament late Thursday approved the nation's $100 billion operating budget for 2012.

    Al-Nujaifi said Thursday's blast likely sought to frighten diplomats from attending the Arab League's annual summit, scheduled to be held in Baghdad in late March. The League meeting was cancelled in Baghdad last year amid similar fears.

    Douglas A. Ollivant, who oversaw Iraq policy at the National Security Council at the White House from 2008 to 2009, said that while security forces may not be able to stop al-Qaida, the violence has come nowhere close to pushing the nation back into war.

    "Al-Qaida has been incredibly ineffective in its goal of renewing sectarian violence," said Ollivant, now senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. "Yes, Iraq has a terrorism problem and it needs to get better at dealing with it. But al-Qaida's inability to get any traction on their larger strategy is demonstrating that the civil war in Iraq is decidedly over."

    But as the burning, charred cars that littered streets across the country showed Thursday, Iraq's battle against terrorism and violence is far from over.

    ___

    Associated Press Writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra, Sinan Salaheddin, Sameer N. Yacoub and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad contributed to this report.


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