The deadliest violence in more than six weeks renewed fears that Iraq is once again in danger of being engulfed in the sectarian turmoil that nearly tipped it into civil war at the height of the insurgency against US forces in the middle of the previous decade.
The co-ordination and sophistication of the attacks bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group for al Qaeda linked Sunni militants whose resurgence coincided with the withdrawal of the last US troops from the country in December.
Operating with a level of impunity that angered many Iraqis, the militants launched more than 30 attacks across the country. Baghdad bore the brunt of the bloodshed, with a series of shootings and bombings unfolding across the capital for more than four hours on Thursday morning.
Much of the violence was directed at civilians, many of them members of Iraq’s Shia majority. In the single deadliest incident of the day, a car bomb exploded in the capital’s shopping district of Karradah, killing nine people.
More than 30 people died in the capital alone, with at least 10 blasts reported across the city. Witnesses spoke of seeing wrecked cars and blood stains on the floors and chairs of an ice cream shop. One attack claimed six lives in Kadhimiya district, where bombs exploded along a restaurant lined street filled with people having breakfast and morning coffees.
The militants struck outside Baghdad too, often with little heed for the age or sex of their victims. One bomb exploded in an alleyway between a restaurant and a primary school in the town of Musayyib, south of Baghdad. One person was killed and more than 60 wounded, the majority of them schoolchildren.
Government forces appeared overwhelmed by the relentlessness of the violence, and often they too were the targets, with army checkpoints, police patrols and even the houses of individual officers coming under attack by both bombers and gunmen.
The failure to rein in a surge of violence over recent months has begun to frustrate many Iraqis who had hoped that such intense violence was a thing of the vast, even as they realised that there country was a long way from the stability and normality craved by the majority of the population.
“What is happening today are not simply security violations,” Ahmed al-Tamimi, a government employee working in a building close to where one bomb detonated, told the Associated Press.
“It is a huge security failure and disaster. We want to know: What were the thousands of policemen and soldiers doing in Baghdad today while the terrorists were roaming the city and spreading violence.”
Thursday’s violence was the worst in Iraq since January 5th, when 73 people were killed in four bombings on mainly Shia areas.
More than 500 people were killed across Iraq in January, the deadliest month in more than a year as al Qaeda groups sought to take advantage of both a security vacuum left by the US troop withdrawal and a sectarian tinged political crisis.
But the violence had abated this month after a row between Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq’s Shia prime minister, and his Sunni coalition partners in the Iraqiya parliamentary bloc appeared to ease.
Officials in Baghdad suggested that Thursday’s attacks could have been carried out with the intention of forcing the cancellation of an Arab League summit that is due to take place in the Iraqi capital next month.
Iraq is desperate to hold the conference as it would demonstrate a restoration of relative normality in the country. Baghdad had been due to host the summit last year, but was forced to cancel it because the security situation deteriorated.