A series of bomb blasts in Baghdad killed 76 people and injured 180 yesterday, the anniversary of last year's attack on a Shia shrine in Samarra which unleashed a surge of sectarian violence across Iraq.
Five synchronised explosions in a crowded marketplace came on the day that a court changed the life sentence imposed on the former vice-president Taha Yassin Ramadan to one of death for his part in the killings at the Shia town of Dujail.
Yesterday's attack was the latest causing large-scale casualties since the United States announced a "surge" into Baghdad with 20,000 additional troops.
A cloud of smoke hundreds of metres wide darkened a bright and sunny day following the explosions just after midday. The bombs struck within a minute of each other, targeting two blocks 200 yards apart. More than 80 cars and surrounding buildings were set alight. Soon afterwards a suicide bombing at the Bab al-Sharji market in the city centre killed five more people.
The bombings took place as government officials, including the Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, took part in a silent ceremony in memory of the Samarra attack last February. The blast destroyed the golden dome of the Al-Aksari shrine and triggered the rise in sectarian attacks, which has continued.
Afterwards Mr Maliki insisted that the security clampdown involving American and Iraqi government forces was going ahead on schedule.
But at the scene of the attacks, with mangled bodies lying on the street and fires raging, there were widespread protests against Mr Maliki and his administration.
"They say big words, but what is there left for us?" An elderly woman cried. "They are killing out sons, destroying our city." Others shouted: " Where is the government?" and "Where is the security plan?" Another survivor, Wathiq Ibrahim, said: "Paramedics are picking up body pieces and human flesh from blood on the ground and putting them in plastic bags. The smoke has turned the whole place black."
Brigadier Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry, said police arrested an Iraqi and two foreigners. The attacks were planned by a new militant cell, he added.
Asking fellow Shias to show restraint, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the spiritual leader of the community, said: "The explosion of the holy shrine pushed this country into blind violence in which tens of thousands of innocent people were killed. No one but Allah knows when this tragedy will be over. We call on all true believers to express their emotions but also to be cautious and disciplined, and not to do anything to hurt our brothers the Sunnis, as they are not responsible for this awful crime." The Grand Ayatollah is, however, becoming increasingly sidelined as Sunni bombings are followed by Shia death squads carrying out abductions and murders.
The radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mehdi Army militia has been blamed for much of the Shia violence and its fighters are among the prime targets in the projected American crackdown. Hakim Abbas al-Zamili, the Deputy Health Minister and a key figure in Mr Sadr's group in parliament, was arrested last week and accused of using ambulances to transport weapons.
Meanwhile, after having his life sentence changed to one of execution, Ramadan shouted: "I swear to God that I'm innocent, Allah is my supporter and will take revenge on all who treated me unjustly!" Human Rights Watch and the International Center for Transitional Justice issued a joint statement yesterday saying the evidence presented against Ramadan was flawed.
Richard Dicker, the director of the International Justice Programme at Human Rights Watch, said: "Ramadan was convicted in an unfair trial, and increasing his punishment ... reeks of vengeance."Reuse content