Baghdad: A coordinated wave of car bombs struck Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and several other cities on Wednesday, killing at least 65 people and wounding more than 200 in one of the deadliest days in Iraq since US troops withdrew from the country.

The bloodshed comes against a backdrop of political divisions that have raised tensions and threatened to provoke a new round of the violence that once pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war.

Nobody immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents who frequently target Shiites in Iraq.

Wednesday’s blasts were the third this week targeting the annual pilgrimage that sees hundreds of thousands of Shiites converge on a golden-domed shrine in Baghdad's northern neighborhood of Kazimiyah to commemorate the eighth century death of a revered Shiite saint, Imam Moussa al-Kadhim. The commemoration culminates on Saturday.

Puddles of blood and shards of metal clogged a drainage ditch at the site of one of the bombings in the city of Hillah, where hours before pilgrims had been marching. Soldiers and dazed onlookers wandered near the charred remains of the car that had exploded and ripped gaping holes in nearby shops.

Most of the 16 separate explosions that rocked the country targeted Shiite pilgrims in five cities, but two hit offices of political parties linked to Iraq's Kurdish minority in the tense north.

Authorities had tightened security ahead of the pilgrimage, including a blockade of the mainly Sunni area of Azamiyah, which is near the twin-domed Shiite shrine.

The level of violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq since peaking in 2006-2007 as the country faced a Sunni-led insurgency and retaliatory sectarian fighting that broke out after the US-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. But Iraqis still face near-daily attacks and Shiite pilgrimages are often targeted.

Political divisions also have only deepened, paralyzing the country since the Americans withdrew all combat troops in mid-December.

Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been accused of trying to monopolize power, and tensions spiked after Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi the highest-ranking Sunni in Iraq's leadership was charged with running death squads.

The government began his trial in absentia since al-Hashemi was out of the country, drawing allegations the charges were part of a vendetta by the Shiite-led government.


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