BAGHDAD -- Bombs in two provincial capitals killed more than 50 Iraqi civilians yesterday, underscoring the continuing threat posed by Sunni Muslim insurgents as they try to regain power in former strongholds.
Coinciding with military efforts to curb the strength of Shiite militias in Baghdad and southern Iraq, the new attacks also portend the potential hurdles ahead for the Iraqi government as U.S. troop levels decrease through the summer. Iraqi troops will take on more responsibility for holding on to security gains made in the past year, and the challenge will be formidable if both Sunni and Shiite extremists are active.
The most recent attacks occurred in Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province northeast of Baghdad, and Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province in western Iraq. Both were characteristic of al-Qaida in Iraq, which has targeted public places with suicide bombers and car bombs to inflict widespread damage and casualties.
Last month, there were 60 such attacks across Iraq, according to U.S. military figures. That represented an increase from 45 in February and 43 in January, the figures showed.
Attacks occur far less frequently than a year ago, before an added 28,500 U.S. troops were sent to Iraq, but the steady increase in violence of late appears to be a sign of the Sunni militant group's tenacity, a U.S. military official said. As long as it is able to lure foreign fighters into Iraq with promises of financial rewards, and as long as Iraq's borders remain porous, al-Qaida in Iraq will remain a threat, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Their strength is, they can buy the talent they need," he said. "They've got a great deal of resilience."
At least 14 suicide bombings or car bomb attacks have been carried out this month, in addition to the incidents yesterday and a bombing Monday in the northern city of Mosul that killed 14 Iraqi soldiers.
U.S. military officials condemned the latest violence but said it should not be viewed as a sign that Sunni insurgents have regained the strength they had lost in the past year.
"This is the first suicide attack inside Baqouba in almost 90 days, and the overall violence in the city has decreased by 80 percent since June," said Maj. Mike Garcia, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Diyala province. Ramadi has also seen violence plummet from an average of hundreds of attacks per day in early 2007, to about two per day now, according to the military.
But Iraqi and U.S. officials, as well as independent analysts, have warned that there is the potential for a continued uptick in violence by Sunni and Shiite militants who aim to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq.
One high-ranking Iraqi government official predicted "a few more rude awakenings" by Shiite militias and by al-Qaida in Iraq through the summer.
"Al-Qaida command is eyeing the American elections," the official said. "Therefore, we must anticipate they will do everything in their power to mount spectacular attacks and increase the level of violence to tell Americans that Iraq is not worth it."
Yesterday's bombings targeted commercial areas crowded with people.
In Baqouba, a car parked along a busy downtown street exploded about 11:30 a.m., shattering storefronts, setting vehicles ablaze and sending chunks of debris through the air. The targeted street is lined with government buildings, including a post office and courthouse.
Police said at least 40 people died and 70 were wounded.
In Ramadi, the attacker rode a motorcycle up to a restaurant, walked inside and blew himself up. Police said 13 people, including seven police officers eating lunch, were killed. Fifteen people were wounded and several were not expected to survive.
In Mosul, two bombs wounded three Iraqi police officers and 15 civilians, U.S. military officials said. Both blasts targeted the same spot, with the second one going off minutes after the first as people rushed to help the wounded.
At least four people died when a bomb went off in central Baghdad.
The decreased violence in Sunni strongholds has been due in part to the decision by many Sunni Arab leaders to turn on the insurgents. This led to the recruitment of tens of thousands of mainly Sunni volunteers who bolster security in the former insurgent areas.
But these volunteers, known collectively as the Sons of Iraq or the Concerned Local Citizens, have been targeted repeatedly by insurgents using suicide bombers to attack their checkpoints. These attacks have been particularly prevalent in Baqouba, despite two major U.S. offensives aimed to drive insurgents from the city.
A leader of the Sons of Iraq in Diyala, Abu Mustafa, described the attacks as "nothing but muscle flexing" by insurgents desperate to reclaim territory but also warned that unless U.S. and Iraqi forces give more help to the security volunteers, the situation could deteriorate.
Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.