Twin car bombings ripped through a Baghdad bus station killing 16 people on Wednesday, as violence across Iraq claimed at least 26 lives and shattered a relative lull marked by largely peaceful polls.
Shiite pilgrims travelling by foot to the central shrine city of Karbala, meanwhile, came under attack in two areas of Baghdad, leaving one devotee dead and 14 wounded, security officials said.
Defence and interior ministry officials said the parked cars blew up in almost simultaneous attacks near the bus station in the Shiite district of Bayah in western Baghdad. Most of the 16 dead and 43 wounded were men.
Iraqi police and US troops cordoned off the scene of the attack, a busy shopping area where blood and body parts were scattered across the streets, amid several burnt-out cars.
The force of the blasts blew the roofs off roadside stalls, leaving wreckage strewn across the streets which were filled with puddles from storms the previous day.
Security officials said one Shiite pilgrim was killed and eight others were wounded, all men, by a roadside bomb as they passed through the southern Baghdad district of Zafaraniyah.
They were on their way to the holy city of Karbala, about 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of the Iraqi capital.
In another attack, a civilian was killed and 12 people were wounded, including six more Shiite pilgrims, in the northern district of Waziriyah, police said.
Shiite pilgrims have begun travelling from across Iraq — mostly on foot — to Karbala for Arbaeen, a ceremony marking 40 days after the anniversary of the Ashura killing of Imam Hussein by Sunni caliph Yazid’s armies in 680.
Staffan de Mistura, the UN chief’s special representative to Iraq, in a statement condemned the targeting of pilgrims as a “murderous attack which was clearly designed to provoke sectarian tensions.”
The violence came “even though the people of Iraq had clearly indicated through their votes on January 31 that they wish to put that sad phase of Iraqi history well behind them,” he said, referring to provincial polls.
The elections at the end of last month were held under strict security conditions with Iraqis voting behind barbed wire and cars banned from the streets of Baghdad for most of the day.
They passed without major incident and confirmed a downward trend in the sectarian violence that in 2006-2007 almost pushed Iraq to civil war.
The tally of deaths per day across Iraq had been down to single digits this month, apart from a suicide attack on a restaurant in restive Diyala province that killed 12 people on February 5, according to local officials.
In January, a total of 191 Iraqis were killed in violence, the lowest monthly toll since the US-led invasion of March 2003, the authorities in Iraq said.
But Wednesday’s violence saw at least 26 people killed, in a sharp reversal of the trend.
In northern Iraq, three policemen were killed in an attack by gunmen against a police patrol in central Mosul, police said. And a suicide bomber in the city killed a soldier and wounded three others, including a civilian, police said.
Police official Mohammed al-Tamimi, meanwhile, said two of his colleagues were killed and three wounded in a roadside bombing near the industrial town of Iskandiriyah, 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of the capital.
A member of the Sahwa anti-Qaeda group was shot dead in an attack on offices in Baquba of the former Sunni insurgents who have sided with the Americans, a security official said.
And a policeman who went to repel the attack was killed in a bomb explosion.
On Tuesday, the new US military commander for Baghdad said his troops aimed to keep insurgents out of the city and leave the Iraqi police to fight crime inside the capital by the end of June.