By SAMEER N. YACOUB, Associated Press
BAGHDAD (AP) — Two bombs exploded in an open-air market in Baghdad on Friday, killing at least 14 people in the latest round of spiraling violence six months after the last U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq.
More than 160 people have died this month in attacks mostly attributed to Sunni insurgents linked to al-Qaida. They are targeting security forces and Shiite civilians in an attempt to weaken Iraq's fragile government, which is mired in deadlock and struggling to provide security and even basic services like electricity.
Friday's explosions, timed within minutes of each other, came at midmorning in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Husseiniyah in northeast Baghdad. No one claimed responsibility.
Mohammed Hussein al-Jizani said he was haggling with customers in his shoe store next to the market when he heard a loud blast and ran outside.
"Three minutes later, there was a second explosion as people and policemen were rushing to the site of the first bomb," al-Jizani said. "The evil insurgents chose the best time to attack, because the market is usually busy on Fridays with young people gathering to sell and buy birds."
The blasts killed at least 14 people and wounded 106, a medical official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
The death toll for the month of June is the second highest so far in 2012, rivaled only by January, when 198 Iraqis were killed in a series of blasts widely seen as al-Qaida's attempts to shock the country immediately after the last American troops withdrew in December.
The absence of international forces combined with the government divisions and weak Iraqi security have emboldened the militants, said Stephanie Sanok, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who formerly worked at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad on governance issues.
"The insurgents are now more complacent in the knowledge that international forces are not going to come riding back in," she said.
Also Friday, a bomb exploded in a car parked near the entrance of the Shiite al-Askari shrine in the city of Samarra, 60 miles (100 kilometers) north of Baghdad, killing one pilgrim and wounding 13 other people, officials said.
The shrine was the site of a huge explosion in February 2006 that sheared off its golden dome and ignited fierce sectarian fighting between Sunnis and Shiites across Iraq.
Officials and experts fear the surge in violence may signal Iraq's potential descent into a failed state, despite its oil wealth, billions of dollars in foreign aid and years of security assistance from U.S. troops. While violence is nowhere as widespread as it was just five years ago, when multiple sectarian killings threatened to push the country into civil war, deadly bombings and shootings still happen nearly every day.
The political crisis that has gripped Iraq since the day after U.S. troops left in December has also heightened sectarian tensions and potentially fueled some of the attacks.
"Insurgents are taking advantage of these fissures in order to influence not only the government but also public opinion of where the power actually lies within Iraq," Sanook said.
In the latest political standoff, parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, leader of the Sunni-dominated Iraqiya political coalition, criticized the Shiite-led government for tearing down blast walls protecting the legislature. Al-Nujaifi said he would not send parliament employees back to work until the walls were put back up. That could happen as soon as Saturday.
Al-Nujaifi also said there were enough votes in parliament to oust Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, from power — even though Iraq's president, a Kurd, has predicted the effort would fall short. Al-Maliki's critics accuse him of sidelining his political opponents and refusing to share authority.
Baghdad operations command spokesman Col. Dhia al-Wakil said Friday that recent attacks shouldn't be taken as a sign of security forces' failure.
"During the past days, the insurgents have mainly attacked soft targets such as pilgrims and markets because they cannot confront the Iraqi security forces," he said.
However, another police official acknowledged that most of Iraqi police and army members are not qualified to deal with the security challenges and they lack training and equipment. He spoke under condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to reporters.
"Once again, innocent people are paying the price for the incompetence of our security forces," shoe seller al-Jizani lamented.
Associated Press writer Kay Johnson contributed to this report.