Suicide bombers killed at least 79 people on Thursday in two attacks in Iraq, reviving fears that Sunni extremists are gearing up for a new campaign of violence just as U.S. forces are preparing to pull back from the nation's cities.
There were no immediate indications that the bombings in Baghdad and nearby Diyala province were coordinated. But they vividly demonstrated that militant groups are still capable of staging attacks that cause mass casualties, as they did in the darkest days of the country's 2006-07 sectarian violence.
Both attacks were carried out by bombers wearing suicide vests, and both seemed aimed at Shiite Muslim civilians. The Baghdad blast, which killed 31 and wounded 51, targeted displaced people lining up for food parcels being distributed by Iraqi police in the mostly Shiite neighborhood of Karada.
The second, which killed 48 and wounded 77, was aimed at Iranian pilgrims gathered in a restaurant in the remote town of Muqdadiya on their way to visit holy Shiite sites in Iraq. Police said 46 of the dead were Iranians and the other two were Iraqi.
The use of suicide vests suggested the involvement of groups affiliated with the group Al Qaeda in Iraq, Iraqi officials said.
Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta Moussawi, a security forces spokesman, blamed remnants of the group working with former officials of the late Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. "All these terrorist forces are trying to shake the security situation and the political process," he said.
Speaking on the pro-government Al Hurra satellite news channel, government spokesman Ali Dabbagh accused Al Qaeda in Iraq of targeting civilians in an attempt to spark a new war.
"Today they targeted Iranian pilgrims in a restaurant, and this is a soft target that can easily be attacked," he said. "This is what Al Qaeda is known for, along with the remnants of the [former] regime. They target everyone, and they don't distinguish whom they kill."
But at the scene of the Baghdad bombing, strewn with broken glass, pools of blood and scattered food parcels, bystanders directed most of their anger toward Prime Minister Nouri Maliki and the government, saying they had failed to do enough to stem a recent increase in violence.
"God damn Nouri Maliki!" exclaimed a disheveled woman who gave her name as Muna and said she had narrowly escaped injury. "They're bringing bombs and detonating them against the people."
Shortly after the attacks, the government appeared to show some progress in the fight against the insurgency by announcing that it had captured Abu Omar Baghdadi, the purported Iraqi leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, an umbrella group that includes Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Dabbagh said the government had been tracking Baghdadi through his cellphone calls and was confident it had caught the right man.
But an Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the identity of the man detained at a checkpoint in east Baghdad on Thursday morning was still being checked out.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said he couldn't confirm that a top Al Qaeda leader had been captured or that it was Baghdadi, the Associated Press reported.
The arrest of Baghdadi would be a major coup against Al Qaeda in Iraq. But several previous reports of his arrest have turned out to be false, and U.S. officials have said they suspect Baghdadi may be a mythical figure created to give the militant group an Iraqi face. The name is a nom de guerre that signifies the man comes from Baghdad.
Thursday's attacks suggest Al Qaeda in Iraq is far from a spent force, even though security gains over the last year and a half have dramatically eroded the extremists' capacity to operate in most parts of Iraq.
Army Maj. Gen. David Perkins, a U.S. military spokesman, told reporters in March that attacks in Iraq had fallen to their lowest levels since 2003, and that violence overall was down 90% compared with June 2007. But April has seen a rash of bombings in western, northern and central Iraq that suggests the trend may be reversing. Thursday's attacks brought to 12 the number of major bombings in the last 17 days, in which a total of more than 150 people have been killed.
The growing unrest comes ahead of the scheduled withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraqi cities by the end of June, under the terms of the Status of Forces Agreement reached with the Iraqi government last year.
American troops have already begun closing some of the combat outposts that had played a crucial role in the successes achieved by the so-called surge of U.S. troops in 2007.
This week, Maliki told Interior Ministry officials that he was confident Iraqi forces were capable of filling the gap left by departing Americans.
"I say with full confidence . . . that we will be able, God willing, to assume this responsibility fully," he said.
But U.S. commanders have already said they may work with the Iraqi government to postpone the departure of American forces from some trouble spots, such as the northern city of Mosul.
Times staff writers Raheem Salman, Saif Hameed and Ned Parker in Baghdad and a special correspondent in Baqubah contributed to this report.