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33 die in Iraq suicide car bombing

A suicide car bomber has struck a Shiite funeral procession in Iraq, killing 33 people.

It happened as suspected al-Qaida militants stepped up apparent efforts to provoke a counter-attack by Shiite militias on Sunnis that could pave the way toward open sectarian warfare now that US troops have left the country.

The powerful blast - the second deadliest attack in Iraq this month - set nearby shops and cars on fire as well as badly injuring many people. It shattered windows and damaged walls in the local hospital, wounding a nurse and four patients. Within minutes, the hospital was scrambling to treat scores of others.

"It was a huge explosion," said Salam Hussein, who was watching the funeral procession from his grocery shop.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in the predominantly Shiite neighbourhood of Zafaraniyah in south-western Baghdad. But the bombing resembled previous attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq.

Minutes after the explosion, gunmen opened fire at a checkpoint in Zafaraniyah, killing two police officers, according to officials.

More than 200 people have been killed in bombings and shootings since the US military withdrew from Iraq on December 18. Many of the dead have been Shiite pilgrims and Iraqi police and soldiers.

Al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups are thought to be exploiting sectarian tensions in the wake of Shiite prime minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to marginalise the Sunni minority and cement his own grip on power.

Mr al-Maliki's security forces have launched a widespread crackdown against Sunni politicians, detaining hundreds for alleged ties to the deposed Baath Party. Vice-president Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, fled to the safety of the Kurdish semi-autonomous zone after he was charged with running death squads during the height of the war.

"The attacks are a reaction to political developments in Iraq," said Mustafa Alani, a Geneva-based analyst and an Iraq expert with the Gulf Research Centre. "The Sunnis feel the Shiites are squeezing them out of the government, and militants see the sectarian tensions in politics as a golden opportunity to reactivate their terror campaign."

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