BAGHDAD — Six car bombs exploded Monday in Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, killing at least 36 people and raising concern that the calm enjoyed in the capital in recent months is starting to fray.
The attacks, which occurred over six hours and left more than 90 people wounded, recalled Baghdad's dark period before a U.S. troop buildup in 2007, when bombings claimed dozens of lives on any given day.
The blasts stoked fears that time was running out for the country's Shiite-led government to promote reconciliation among sects and ethnic groups. Suspects in the bombing included the group Al Qaeda in Iraq and the outlawed Baath Party as well as U.S.-backed Sunni paramilitary fighters, called the Sons of Iraq.
The explosions came a week after Iraqi forces put down an insurrection by Sons of Iraq fighters in east Baghdad, which raised fear that Sunnis who had turned against the insurgency could return to fighting the Shiite-led government.
The attacks also heightened concern about the plans to withdraw U.S. combat troops to bases outside cities this summer.
The reduction in violence witnessed in the last year and a half has long been attributed to several factors: the sending of U.S. troops to live in Baghdad neighborhoods, the emergence of Sunni paramilitary fighters opposed to Al Qaeda in Iraq, the decision by Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr in August 2007 to rein in his Mahdi Army militia and the gradual improvement of Iraq's security forces.
However, some Iraqi politicians and Western analysts have described the relative calm as the product of truces that could easily unravel if there was no real political progress in Iraq.
Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish political parties remain deeply divided over issues such as providing jobs to former supporters of the late Saddam Hussein and passage of a national oil law. Some politicians worry that the country could be entering another violent era, with the relative quiet of last year having been squandered.
"In this last period, there have been no genuine accomplishments regarding national reconciliation so stability hasn't been achieved and the gap has widened between the government and the people," said Salim Abdullah Jabouri, the spokesman for the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament.
Shiite officials attributed the attacks to remnants of Hussein's Baath Party ahead of the anniversary of both his fall in 2003 and the party's founding in 1947.
"We believe that Baath is behind this and maybe the remnants" of Al Qaeda in Iraq, said lawmaker Ali Alaq, a member of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party.
U.S. forces and some Sons of Iraq fighters suspected that the attack was the work of Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Does it look like Al Qaeda? Yeah, it's one of those things where if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it is probably a duck," said Master Sgt. Nick Connors, a military spokesman in Baghdad.
According to police, the first car bomb detonated near a busy transportation hub at 7 a.m. in west Baghdad's Allawi neighborhood, killing six people and wounding 17 others.
Two hours later, a car bomb exploded in the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, a redoubt of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, killing 12 people and wounding 31 others.
In New Baghdad, within 30 minutes of the Sadr City blast, a car bomb targeted an Interior Ministry police general's convoy and killed three people, including one of his bodyguards.
Within an hour, a fourth car bomb exploded in Husseiniya, killing three people and wounding 15 others. Two more car bombs exploded by 12:30 p.m. at a market and Shiite mosque in the west Baghdad area of Umm al Maalif, killing 12 people and injuring 29 others.
The car bomb in Sadr City brought calls by some residents for the return of the Mahdi Army militia to protect them. Witnesses said some people hurled stones and tomatoes at Iraqi soldiers.
At the height of the nation's civil war in 2006 and 2007, Sadr's militia was seen as a protector and often carried out reprisal killings after bombings against Shiite neighborhoods.
Day laborer Jalal Jabar stood on a street in Sadr City on Monday and denounced the Iraqi army.
"The Iraqi forces are to blame for this attack. They do nothing. They just carry out random raids nightly against the people of Sadr City," Jabar said. "The security situation under the Mahdi Army was better than now; at least there were no explosions in the city."
For ordinary Iraqis, it was simply a reintroduction to the bloodshed that had dogged their lives for most of the post-Hussein era.
"I tell you these images of blood and the death of innocent people is bringing back memories of the violence we witnessed two years ago," said Salah Abu Maryam, a guard at Kindi Hospital in east Baghdad. "I pray to God it will not continue like this."
Times staff writers Ned Parker and Saif Hameed contributed to this report.