BAGHDAD — Rapid-fire bombings and mortar strikes killed 76 people and wounded more than 200 across Baghdad's myriad neighborhoods Tuesday, demonstrating the insurgents' ability to carry out coordinated strikes from one side of the capital to the other.
The attack – blasts in at least 13 separate neighborhoods – was clearly designed to hit civilians at restaurants and cafes where many Iraqis were gathered to enjoy the warm evening. The sophistication and the targets – Shiites – suggested that al-Qaida-linked Sunni militants were responsible for the deadliest day in Iraq since May.
The strikes, two days after the bloody siege of a downtown church, were stunning in their scope – indicating a high degree of coordination and complexity from an insurgency that just a few months ago U.S. and Iraqi officials were saying was all but defeated.
"They say the situation is under the control. Where is their control?" said Hussein al-Saiedi, a 26-year-old resident of Baghdad's sprawling Sadr City slum, where 21 people were killed when a parked car blew up near a market in Tuesday's deadliest bombing.
"We were just standing on the street when we heard a loud noise, and then saw smoke and pieces of cars, falling from the sky," al-Saiedi said. People were fleeing the site in panic, frantically calling the names of their relatives and friends."
The bombings began at about 6:15 p.m. and lasted for hours. The assailants used booby-trapped cars and a motorcycle, roadside bombs and mortars. Though 10 neighborhoods targeted were home to mostly Shiites, a couple of strikes hit Sunni communities as well.
In addition to the 76 dead, 232 people were wounded, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki called the string of blasts and the church siege crimes by terrorists and former members of the Baath Party – which once ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein – against innocent civilians designed to provoke sectarian strife and destablize the government.
"The criminal acts that targeted the Christians at the Lady of Salvation church and the civilians in Baghdad are political blasts intending to halt the forming of the government," he said in a statement. Iraq has been without a new government since the March 7 elections, leaving a political vacuum that many fear insurgents are trying to exploit.
The White House condemned the "vicious violence" and offered sympathy to the victims' families and all Iraqis.
"We have confidence that the people of Iraq will remain steadfast in their rejection of efforts by extremists to spark sectarian tension," said National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer. "These attacks will not stop Iraq's progress. The United States stands with the people of Iraq and remains committed to our strong and long-term partnership."
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but suspicion fell on al-Qaida.
"We do not have any conclusive information at this time as to the responsible parties but this seems to be typical AQI (al-Qaida in Iraq) tactics," said Lt. Col. Eric Bloom, a U.S. military spokesman.
Bloom said American military advisers were at some of the 13 to 17 explosion sites, working with Iraqi military explosives disposal teams.
Fearing retribution for the attack, police on loudspeakers told people in the Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah to stay home. In Sadr City, police ordered people to go home.
The surge in violence is raising fresh concerns about the planned pullout of American troops next year. The U.S. now has just under 50,000 troops in Iraq, down from a wartime high of 170,000.
A State Department audit concluded Tuesday that the Obama administration could be overstating what U.S. diplomats can do to contain Iraq's ethnic and sectarian tensions without U.S. military forces.
The auditors also questioned whether American diplomats who remain behind will be adequately protected against insurgent violence, and their report faulted Washington for its planning of the transition from a U.S. military-led mission in Iraq to one run by American civilians in 2011.
In its report, the State Department's office of inspector general said stability in Iraq may be years away. It warned that the failure of Iraqi political leaders to form a unity government has interfered with the "urgent task" of planning for Washington's post-2011 diplomatic role.
Stephen Biddle, an Iraq watcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, said it will be difficult for U.S. diplomats to keep a lid on Sunni-Shiite and Arab-Kurd rivalries in the absence of a sizable American military presence.
"Normally, stabilizing a situation like this requires peacekeepers," he said. "Peacekeepers are soldiers. That doesn't say there aren't important and valuable things that government civilians can do. But ... security protection is important in this environment, and that's not something State Department civilians do."
Iraq has been plagued by conflict between Shiite and Sunni Muslim sects since the 2003 collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, which was dominated by the minority Sunnis. It was supplanted by a Shiite-dominated government that remains in power until today.
Tuesday's blasts came just hours after Christians gathered at a downtown church to mourn 58 people killed in an assault on a Sunday Mass. An al-Qaida-linked group claimed responsibility for that attack – the deadliest ever against Iraq's dwindling Christian community.
"They murdered us today, and on Sunday they killed our brothers the Christians," said al-Saiedi, the Sadr City resident.
The complex attack carried out on parishioners celebrating Mass at the Our Lady of Salvation church in an affluent Baghdad neighborhood emphasized the particularly dangerous position that the country's Christians occupy among Iraq's sectarian structure.
Iraq's top Catholic prelate, Chaldean Cardinal Emmanuel III Delly, urged the government to protect the nation's Christian community and not let their promises just be ink on paper.
"We are gathered here in this sacred house to say farewell to our brothers who were just the day before yesterday exclaiming love and peace," Delly told a weeping congregation at the Chaldean St. Joseph Church in central Baghdad.
In a show of force, Iraqi security forces flooded the streets around the church where black-clad parishioners mourned for the dead parishioners.
But as the security forces concentrated their efforts in the central Karradah neighborhood where the funeral took place, militants appeared to have spread out in a ring across the capital where the evening attack unfolded just hours later.
Adnan Anbar, a 42-year-old man who was crossing the street in Sadr City when the parked car blew up, questioned the effectiveness of the hundreds of police and army checkpoints scattered throughout Baghdad.
"What are all these checkpoints about?" Anbar asked. "Where is the government?"
Associated Press writers Robert Burs in Washington and Lara Jakes and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad contributed to this report.