BAGHDAD - Bombs struck two Sunni towns at sundown Sunday just as Iraqis were preparing to break their holy day's fast, killing 18 and wounding more than 50, officials said. Two earlier bomb blasts killed a policeman and wounded dozens of people.
The multiple bomb attacks showed that deadly violence is still common and in some places even worsening in Iraq, seven months after the U.S. pulled its last troops out of the country. Most of the attacks bear the hallmarks of Sunni Muslim insurgents linked to al-Qaida, targeting Shiites and their holy sites as well as security forces working for the Shiite-led government.
The two latest bombings, however, struck predominantly Sunni towns. So far, Shiite militants have resisted striking back at Sunnis. It was not immediately clear if the Sunday bombings were retaliation for earlier attacks, but residents in the stricken areas raised fears of renewed sectarian conflict.
The first sundown attack, in the town of Mahmoudiya, was the deadliest - a double bombing in which the second seemed aimed at hitting people who came to help victims of the first blast.
A car exploded around 7 p.m. in a parking lot for minibuses in the town, about 20 miles (30 kilometers) south of Baghdad. As emergency responders sprang into action, a second car blew up, according to police at the scene.
Twelve people were killed in the double blast, including two policemen, officials said. Another 36 were wounded. A medic at Mahmoudiya public hospital confirmed the casualty toll.
"People are worried that these attacks might ignite sectarian violence again," said Ali Kamal, a 41, who owns a small warehouse for electric equipment close to the parking lot. "Especially when it coincides with the Syrian events."
Syria's bloody 17-month civil war between Sunni rebels and the regime of President Bashar Assad, a member of a Shiite offshoot sect, has reached the Syrian-Iraq border over the last few days. Rebels overtook two major border crossings between the two countries, although Syrian authorities wrested one of them back on Sunday. Nevertheless, the violence has terrified Iraqis who were living in Syria, thousands of whom have fled home to escape the fighting.
Sunday's attacks, striking three communities across the country, underscored how dangerous Iraq itself remains.
Kamal said women and children were among the wounded in Mahmoudiya, and many nearby shops and cars were heavily damaged. The parking lot is usually crammed with shoppers in the early evening.
Ten minutes later and about 20 kilometers (12 miles) away, two roadside bombs struck an open-air market in Madain, another Sunni town southeast of the capital. Officials said six people were killed and 15 wounded.
All officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
Together, the four bombs struck just as Iraqis were preparing to break their daylong fast that marks the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. They followed two earlier attacks Sunday that killed a policeman and injured 33 people in the northern Sunni city of Mosul and the Shiite holy city of Najaf in Iraq's south.
"With the blast in Najaf this morning and now more in Sunni areas, this might indicate the beginning" of sectarian fighting, Kamal said.
Mahmoudiya is part of the Sunni-dominated area that was widely known as the Triangle of Death that served as a base for al-Qaida when Iraq appeared to be descending into civil war, although it has slowly begun to stabilize. Madain is also known as Salman Pak, and is still plagued by insurgent cells that have prevented most tourists from visiting ancient Persian ruins there. It once housed a military base that was a center of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's biological and chemical weapons program.
The leader of al-Qaida's affiliate in Iraq issued an online statement late Saturday claiming that the militant network is returning to strongholds it was driven from before the American withdrawal last December.
In an audio recording that identified the speaker as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of the Islamic State of Iraq since 2010, the militant group claimed it is preparing operations to free prisoners and assassinate court officials.
"The majority of the Sunnis in Iraq support al-Qaida and are waiting for its return," al-Baghdadi said in the statement that was posted on a militant website.
Al-Baghdadi devoted almost half of the 33-minute speech to the uprising against Assad. Fighters from al-Qaida, including Iraqis, are believed to have taken an increasingly active role in the Sunni rebellion against the regime in recent months.