BAGHDAD – Car bombs struck two outdoor markets and a group of taxi vans in Shiite areas across Iraq on Friday, killing at least 36 people and wounding nearly 100 in the bloodiest day in more than two months, as minority Sunnis staged large anti-government protests.
Sunni protesters have rejected calls to violence by an Al Qaeda-linked group, but there is concern that Sunni insurgents could step up attacks ahead of the April 20 provincial elections -- the first country-wide vote since the U.S. troop withdrawal more than a year ago.
On Friday, tens of thousands of Sunni protesters rallied in five major cities against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite accused of monopolizing power. Sunnis also complain of official discrimination.
In the city of Samarra, rally speaker Sheik Mohammed Jumaa sent a warning to the prime minister. "Stop tyranny and oppression," he said. "We want our rights. You will witness what other tyrants have witnessed before you."
In the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in restive Anbar province, demonstrators blocked the main highway to Jordan and performed Friday noon prayers, the highlight of the religious week. Anbar is a former Al Qaeda stronghold that saw fierce fighting against U.S. forces.
Other rallies were held in the cities of Mosul and Tikrit, as part of weekly Sunni demonstrations that were sparked by the December arrests of bodyguards of a senior Sunni politician.
Earlier Friday, suspected Sunni insurgents detonated five car bombs, killing at least 36 people and wounding 97, health and police officials said. It was the bloodiest day of attacks since Nov. 29, when 43 people, many of them Shiite pilgrims, were killed in a wave of attacks.
Friday's bombings targeted an outdoor pet market in Baghdad's northern Kazimyah neighborhood, a vegetable market in the town of Shomali in Hillah province, south of the Iraqi capital, and a stand for taxi vans on the edge of the southern city of Karbala.
The assailants targeted particularly crowded areas. Iraqis converge on markets every Friday, the Muslim day of rest, to shop and spend family time. The vans on the outskirts of Karbala were waiting for passengers returning from noon prayers at the city's Shiite shrines.
In Baghdad, the first car bomb exploded around mid-morning at the entrance to the Kazimyah market, two police officers said. When panicked shoppers tried to flee the area, a second parked car exploded a few yards away, according to the officers.
The twin blasts turned several nearby cars into tangled piles of metal.
At least 17 people were killed and 45 were wounded in the two blasts, police said. All the victims were civilians.
About an hour later, two car bombs exploded simultaneously at the Shomali market, killing at least 14 people and wounding 36, two police officers said.
The car bomb on the edge of Karbala killed five and wounded 16, police said.
Health officials confirmed the casualty figures in each attack. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
Violence has dropped in Iraq since the worst sectarian fighting in 2006-2007, but insurgents carry out near-daily attacks on security forces and civilians in an attempt to undermine the Shiite-led government.
The current spike comes just over two months ahead of the provincial election.
Hadi Jalo, an analyst at the Baghdad-based Political Decision Center for Strategic Studies, said he believes Al Qaeda-linked militants in Iraq are trying to exploit the growing Sunni discontent.
"I believe that with this fertile atmosphere there will be more attacks ahead of the provincial elections," he said.