Baghdad political analyst Hadi Jalo said al-Qaida in Iraq, as a Sunni group, feels emboldened by the success of the Sunni-dominated uprising in neighboring Syria against Damascus' Alawite rulers. The Alawites are an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
"It is leading a sectarian war and Iraq is part of its war and ideology in this region," Jalo said.
In a statement issued Saturday, the leader of al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq warned that the militant network is returning to strongholds from which it was driven from while the American military was here.
"The majority of the Sunnis in Iraq support al-Qaida and are waiting for its return," Islamic State of Iraq leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi said in the statement that was posted on a militant website.
The local wing of al-Qaida, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, has long been at odds with al-Qaida's central leadership. The global network's current leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, has in the past criticized Iraq's movement for targeting civilians. But earlier this year, al-Zawahri softened his stance, and included ISI militants in a network plea for fighters to join the Syrian uprising.
Previous al-Qaida offensives have failed to push the country into civil war, largely because Shiite militias in recent years have refused to be lured into the kind of tit-for-tat killings that marked Iraq's descent six years ago. Additionally, for all its weaknesses, the Iraqi government now holds more authority than it did during those dark years, and, by and large, citizens have no desire to return down that path.
Still, the militant group appears to be banking on Iraq's fragility in its campaign to throw it into permanent chaos. Sectarian tensions have risen due to a political crisis stemming from terror charges the Shiite-led government has filed against one of the country's vice presidents, who is one of Iraq's top Sunni officials. He says they are politically inspired.
Mohammed Munim, 35, was working at an Interior Ministry office that issues government ID cards to residents in Baghdad's Shiite Sadr City neighborhood when a car exploded outside, killing 16 people.
"It was a thunderous explosion," Munim said from his bed in the emergency room at Sadr City hospital. He was hit by shrapnel in his neck and back. "The only thing I remember was the smoke and fire, which was everywhere."
Most of the cities and towns pounded by bombs Monday are located in Sunni-dominated areas that nonetheless include sizable pockets of ethnically- and religiously-mixed populations.
Attacks struck the Baghdad suburb of Hussainiya, northeastern Diyala province, five towns around Kirkuk and in the oil-rich city itself as well as the northern city of Mosul — a former al-Qaida stronghold, police said.
Only one of Monday's attacks occurred in undisputed Shiite territory: a bomb in the southern town of Diwaniyah that police said killed three people and wounded 25.
All of the casualties were confirmed by police and health officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Associated Press Writer Lara Jakes in Baghdad and Yahya Barzanji in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, contributed to this report.
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