Car bombs kill 54 in Shi'ite districts of Baghdad

Reuters

* Fourteen car bombs explode in Iraqi capital

* Violence widely blamed on Sunni Islamist militants

* Arbil tense after first big attack in Kurdstan since 2007

By Kareem Raheem

BAGHDAD, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Car bombs killed at least 54people in mostly Shi'ite Muslim areas of Baghdad on Monday assuspected Sunni Muslim militants pursued a campaign to plungeIraq back into sectarian strife.

Altogether 14 bombs shook Baghdad, the deadliest of them inSadr City, where a white car blew up near where men had gatheredto seek work, killing seven people, including two soldiers.

"The driver said he would move the car soon, but it explodeda few minutes later," said Abu Mohammed, a worker at the scene,where bits of molten metal lay among cars wrecked in the blast.

Violence blamed mostly on Sunni militants who view Shi'itesas heretics has killed more than 6,000 people this year,according to the monitoring group Iraq Body Count, reversing adecline in sectarian bloodshed that had climaxed in 2006-07.

At that time, Sunni tribesmen helped U.S. forces rout alQaeda, but many of those "Sahwa (Awakening)" fighters say theShi'ite-led government has reneged on promises to reward them.

Their discontent reflects wider resentment among minoritySunnis against the government that came to power after theU.S.-led invasion that vanquished Saddam Hussein in 2003.

Sunnis launched street protests in December after Shi'itePrime Minister Nouri al-Maliki sought to arrest a senior Sunnipolitician. A bloody raid by security forces on a protest campin April touched off a violent backlash by Sunni militants.

"The (security situation) will get worse because al Qaedaand its allies will increase their attacks against both sects toincite people and force them to respond," said a senior securityofficial who declined to be named.

So far Shi'ite militias, most of which disarmed in recentyears and joined the reconstituted security forces or enteredthe political process, have largely held their fire, but severalattacks in recent weeks suggest that some are retaliating.

Iraq's sectarian balance has come under further pressurefrom the civil war in neighbouring Syria, where mainly Sunnirebels are fighting to topple a leader backed by Shi'ite Iran.

Both Sunnis and Shi'ites have crossed into Syria from Iraqto fight on opposite sides of the conflict.

Al Qaeda's Iraqi and Syrian branches merged earlier thisyear to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which hasclaimed responsibility for attacks on both sides of the border.

"ATTRACTIVE TARGET"

On Sunday, the Kurdistan region, a northern enclaverelatively insulated from the violence that afflicts the rest ofIraq, suffered its first major bombing since 2007.

A charred crater in the road marks where a car bomb explodedduring a suicide assault on the security headquarters in theregional capital Arbil in which at least six people were killed.

A stench of burnt tarmac still hung over the scene, and theremains of a slain assailant lay on the grassy road divider.

"We realise that Arbil is a big, attractive target forterrorists," said the city's governor Nozad Hadi. "During thepast seven years there were constant attempts by terrorists toundermine the security of the capital."

Kurdistan's relative security has attracted some of theworld's largest oil companies including ExxonMobil,Chevron Corp and Total to the region, which isautonomous and polices its own borders.

Most of these oil firms have their main offices in Arbil,but after Sunday's attack they took extra security measures andrestricted the movements of their staff, industry sources said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the Arbil attack,but it was hailed by hardline Sunni Islamists, who in recentmonths have been fighting a Kurdish militia in Syria.

Analysts say the assault may have been carried out by alQaeda-affiliated militants in revenge for the Kurdistan RegionalGovernment's perceived support for Kurds in Syria.

A risk consultancy said militants would try to strike theregion again, but would find it difficult because the Kurdishsecurity apparatus is "relatively well developed".

"Further attacks should therefore be expected but they arelikely to remain infrequent occurrences," said John Drake, ofthe AKE consultancy. "The day-to-day operating environment willremain stable but we will continue to warn against complacency."

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