A suicide attacker blew up a bomb-packed car at a Shia religious foundation’s headquarters in Baghdad on Monday, killing at least 22 people, officials said, in the capital’s deadliest blast in more than four months.
Shortly after the attack, at least one explosion struck near the Sunni foundation’s headquarters in the capital, leaving no casualties, amid a dispute between the two endowments, which manage the country’s religious landmarks, over a shrine north of Baghdad.
The violence also comes during a protracted political standoff that has raised sectarian tensions in a country racked by brutal communal bloodshed from 2006 to 2008.
Monday’s first attack struck at 11:00 am (0800 GMT) outside the Shia endowment in Baab al-Muadham, central Baghdad, and left at least 22 people dead and more than 65 wounded, two medical officials said.
The bombing completely destroyed the endowment headquarters, its deputy chief, Sami al-Massudi, told AFP.
“We do not accuse anyone, but we call on the Iraqi people and especially on the sons of our religion to bury the strife because there is a plan to launch a civil war between the people, and between the Iraqi sects,” Massudi said.
He said the Shia endowment had received threats in recent days as a result of the dispute over the Al-Askari shrine, a Shia Muslim site in the mostly Sunni city of Samarra, north of Baghdad.
The iconic gold-domed shrine was hit by a brutal al Qaeda suicide attack in February 2006 that ignited the country’s bloody confessional violence.
Massudi and his aides had produced documents in recent days that attributed the management of the shrine to the Shia religious endowment, sparking tensions with its Sunni counterpart.
“The issue of the Al-Askari shrine is a legal and constitutional issue, and it is our right, because it is a Shia shrine,” Massudi said.
AFP journalists near the site of the attack said security forces cordoned off the scene and barred anyone from approaching the area, while emergency workers searched for survivors amid the remains of the endowment headquarters.
Several cars and nearby buildings were badly damaged by the explosion, and helicopters were hovering overhead.
One man threw his spectacles to the ground and yelled: “They are all dead! They are all dead!”
Later on Monday, the spokesman of the Sunni endowment told AFP that two mortars struck its headquarters in Adhamiyah, north Baghdad, while an interior ministry official said it was a roadside bomb that exploded near the building.
The attack left no casualties, both said.
“We reject and condemn this criminal, cowardly, fanatical attack,” Sunni endowment spokesman Faris al-Mehdawi said, referring to the attack against the Shia endowment. “These attacks aim to create divisions between the Iraqi people.”
“There are dirty hands that are playing on sectarianism, and trying to bring the country back to the years of violence.”
The spike in attacks coincides with a ratcheting up of months-long tensions in which several political parties have called for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to be unseated.
“Maliki and Allawi are fighting over the government, and we are the victims,” said Mohammed, who owns a restaurant opposite the Shia foundation headquarters, referring to Iyad Allawi, a rival of Maliki.
“Come and see the houses that were destroyed on the heads of children,” he said, shirtless and covered in blood. “In my two hands, I carried children from under the rubble.”
The latest violence comes less than a week after a spate of bombings in Baghdad left 17 dead on May 31, shattering a relative calm in the city.
Monday’s death toll was the highest from a single attack in Baghdad since a suicide car bomb outside a hospital killed 31 people on January 27.
Violence in Iraq has declined dramatically since its peak in 2006 and 2007, but attacks remain common, especially in Baghdad. A total of 132 Iraqis were killed in violence in May, according to official figures.