Suicide attacks put Iraq's political future in doubt

More than 120 people were killed in one of the bloodiest days of the Iraq conflict yesterday in a series of attacks, including two devastating suicide bombings.

The violence, which also claimed the lives of seven American soldiers, brought the number of deaths to 170 in 48 hours and prompted further doubts about the fiture political stability of Iraq following the elections last month.

The suicide blasts were in the Shia holy city of Karbala and at Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad. Another three explosions took place in Baghdad and a massive fire started after an oil pipeline was blown up near Kirkuk in the north.

Iraq's Prime Minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, and other prominent politicians condemned the attacks, saying they were intended to sabotage progress being made towards forming a broad-based coalition government. But the country's largest Shia party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) bitterly denounced Sunni Arab groups for inciting sectarian violence after faring poorly at the polls. Reinforcing fears of further descent into civil war, they warned some factions may take direct action because the American-led coalition was allegedly hampering attempts by government forces to combat the insurgents.

Yesterday's death toll was the largest in four months and, critics point out, shows the state of near anarchy in Iraq in stark contrast to repeated claims by President George Bush and the Prime Minister, Tony Blair, that the security situation is improving.

The United Nations secretary general, Kofi Annan, noted that the "horrendous crime" was the latest in a series of increasingly violent attacks after the 15 December elections and warned of the danger of the democratic process being fatally undermined.

Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, had been relatively peaceful in recent months. Yesterday's suicide blast, near the Imam Hussein shrine, was aimed at one of the Shia's holiest places.

Police Colonel Razaq al-Taie said 49 people had been killed and another 52 injured. The bomber had detonated his bomb about 30 yards from the shrine in a busy pedestrian area. A mother and her infant girl, in a bright red jumpsuit, lay in a pool of blood.

"I never thought such a crime could happen near this holy site," said Mohammed Saheb, who suffered a head injury. "The terrorists are targeting the Shia."

Karbala's governor, Aqeel al-Khazraji, blamed "takfiris and Saddamists" for the attack. The Sunni takfiri ideology is followed by the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who has declared war on the Shia population.

The attack in Ramadi, which killed 56 people and wounded 60 others, was aimed at a queue of police recruits. Elsewhere, five American soldiers were killed when a roadside bomb hit their vehicle while on patrol in Baghdad. Another two members of US forces were killed by a roadside bomb near the southern city of Najaf.

Final results from the elections should be released within two weeks, and they are expected to show the Shia United Iraqi Alliance winning about 130 of parliament's 275 seats, a figure well short of the 184 needed to form a government.

Talks are being held to form an administration with Sunni participation. But a senior official in the Iraqi Accordance Movement, the main minority Sunni coalition, blamed the Shia-dominated government for colluding in the violence.

Izzat al-Shahbandar said: "This government has not only failed to end violence, but has become an accomplice by adopting sectarian policies, and by weakening the state and strengthening militia groups."

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