A wave of attacks has killed up to 80 people in Shiite and Sunni areas of Iraq extending one of the most sustained bouts of sectarian violence the country has seen in years.
The bloodshed is still far shy of the pace, scale and brutality of the dark days of 2006-2007, when Sunni and Shiite militias carried out retaliatory attacks against each other in a cycle of violence that left the country awash in blood. However the latest attacks, some of which hit markets and crowded bus stops during the morning rush hour, have heightened fears that the country could be turning back down the path toward civil war.
Sectarian tensions have been worsening since Iraq's minority Sunnis began protesting at what they say is mistreatment at the hands of the Shiite-led government. The mass demonstrations, which began in December, have largely been peaceful, but the number of attacks rose sharply after a deadly security crackdown on a Sunni protest camp in northern Iraq on April 23.
Iraq's Shiite majority, which was oppressed under Saddam Hussein, now holds power in the country. Wishing to rebuild the nation rather than revert to open warfare, they have largely restrained their militias over the past five years or so as Sunni extremist groups such as al Qaida have targeted them with occasional large-scale attacks.
But the renewed violence in both Shiite and Sunni areas since late last month has fuelled concerns of a return to sectarian warfare. Since last Wednesday alone, at least 224 people have been killed.
The worst violence took place in Baghdad, where ten car bombs ripped through open-air markets and other areas of Shiite neighbourhoods, killing at least 47 people and wounding more than 150.
The surge in bloodshed has exasperated Iraqis, who have lived for years with the fear and uncertainty bred of random violence.
"How long do we have to continue living like this, with all the lies from the government?" asked 23-year-old Baghdad resident Malik Ibrahim. "Whenever they say they have reached a solution, the bombings come back stronger than before. We're fed up with them and we can't tolerate this anymore."
The predominantly Shiite city of Basra in southern Iraq was also hit with two car bombs. In Balad, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, a car bomb exploded next to a bus carrying Iranian pilgrims, killing six. There was no claim of responsibility for the attacks, but the fact that they all occurred in Shiite areas raised the suspicion that Sunni militants were involved.
The violence also struck Sunni areas, hitting the city of Samarra north of Baghdad and the western province of Anbar, a Sunni stronghold and the birthplace of the protest movement.