Car bombings hit Shiite pilgrimage, underscoring Iraq's sectarian divide

Sunni-Shiite tensions are high in Iraq, where Prime Minister Maliki's coalition government partners – particularly one Sunni bloc – accuse him of failing to share power.

Karim Kadim/AP
People and security forces inspect the scene of a car bomb attack in the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad, Iraq, Wednesday, June 13. Wave of bombings targeted religious processions during the annual pilgrimage commemorating the 8th century death of a revered Shiite imam, killing and wounding scores of people, police said.

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As Shiite pilgrims poured into Baghdad today, coordinated car bombings struck the annual pilgrimage, killing at least 63. 

The Associated Press reports that the attacks bore similarities to those carried out by Sunni insurgents in the past, implying a sectarian motivation – a troubling element in a country where the foremost concern is a return to the sectarian violence that left the country in shambles and continues to impede the rebuilding process today.

Today's attacks in Baghdad and at least five other cities or towns were the third this week targeting the pilgrimage, according to Associated Press. The first bomb struck in Taji, north of Baghdad, around 5 a.m. local time. It was followed by four throughout Baghdad; two in Hillah, south of the capital; one in the Shiite holy city of Karbala; and one in Balad, north of Baghdad. (See map here.) In 2005, roughly 1,000 Shiites were killed during the same pilgrimage in Baghdad when rumors of a suicide bomber spread through a procession, prompting a stampede. 

In a potentially related incident today, three bombs also went off in Kirkuk in northern Iraq today, one of them outside the office of a prominent Kurd.

Baghdad military command spokesman Col. Dhia al-Wakeel told AP that the intent of the bombings is to spark a full-fledged sectarian conflict but that Iraqis are "fully aware of the terrorism agenda and will not slip into a sectarian conflict."

But tensions between majority Shiites and minority Sunnis are high, with Shiite President Nouri al-Maliki recently using a technicality to dodge an effort to oust him from office, according to a separate AP report. His coalition partners in parliament, particularly the Sunni Iraqiya bloc, accuse him of failing to share power, of consolidating his power among other government institutions, and launching politically driven prosecutions against their leaders.

The Shiites, Sunnis, and Kurds have been struggling to find a way to share power since Saddam Hussein was ousted during the US invasion, and the difficulties have only become more substantial since the US withdrawal last year. 

But recent high-profile diplomatic gatherings illustrate that Iraq is making slight progress at regaining stability and conveying a sense of progress. Last month's nuclear talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Britain, France, China, Russia, and Germany) and the Arab League summit in March both went relatively smoothly, albeit with substantially elevated security to prevent the meetings from being disrupted by violence.

“My brothers, it was an impossible dream that we meet you in Baghdad less than three years ago,” Mr. Maliki told Arab leaders gathered for the Arab League summit, according to The Christian Science Monitor. “Baghdad was a ghost town, its institutions abandoned, mosques and churches in ruins … neighborhoods isolated and hospitals full of the dead and wounded.”

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