BAGHDAD -- A suicide car bomber struck a Shiite funeral procession Friday, killing 33 people as suspected al-Qaida militants stepped up apparent efforts to provoke a counterattack by Shiite militias on Sunnis that could pave the way toward open sectarian warfare now that U.S. troops have left Iraq.
The powerful blast – the second deadliest attack in Iraq this month – set nearby stores and cars ablaze alongside scattered flesh and mutilated bodies. It shattered windows and damaged walls in the local hospital, wounding a nurse and four patients; Within minutes, the hospital was scrambling to treat scores of others.
"It was a huge explosion," said Salam Hussein, who was watching the funeral procession from his grocery store.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attack in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah in southwestern Baghdad. But the bombing resembled previous attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq.
Minutes after the explosion, gunmen opened fire at a checkpoint in Zafaraniyah, killing two police officers, according to police officials. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
More than 200 people have been killed in bombings and shootings since the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq on Dec. 18. Many of the dead have been Shiite pilgrims and Iraqi police and soldiers.
Al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups are thought to be exploiting sectarian tensions in the wake of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to marginalize the Sunni minority and cement his own grip on power.
Al-Maliki's security forces have launched a widespread crackdown against Sunni politicians, detaining hundreds for alleged ties to the deposed Baath Party. Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, fled to the safety of the Kurdish semiautonomous zone after he was charged with running death squads during the height of the war.
"The attacks are a reaction to political developments in Iraq," said Mustafa Alani, a Geneva-based analyst and an Iraq expert with the Gulf Research Center. "The Sunnis feel the Shiites are squeezing them out of the government, and militants see the sectarian tensions in politics as a golden opportunity to reactivate their terror campaign."
"The U.S. soldiers are gone, Sunni politicians are being marginalized and while most Sunnis will not support the militants at the expense of being part of the political process, the attackers know that most Sunnis won't condemn violent acts either," Alani said.
Hadi Jalo, a Baghdad-based political analyst said the attacks could be a provocation by Sunni militants, trying to draw government-backed Shiite militias back into a sectarian fight.
"Those behind these attacks know that there are a number of organized Shiite armed groups who can strike back in Sunni areas to renew the tit-for-tat killings," Jalo said.
Friday's car bomb killed 33 people, including eight policemen, according to police and officials at Zafaraniyah General Hospital. Sixty-five people were wounded, including 16 members of the security forces, they said.
Baghdad military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi gave different figures in an interview with the U.S.-funded Al-Hurra television. He said 11 people were killed, including eight policemen who were protecting the funeral, and 45 were wounded. The Iraqi government often underplays the number of casualties in attacks.
The attack took place at 11 a.m., when about 500 mourners were walking through a market area carrying coffins of a real estate agent and his brother-in-law. They had been shot and killed the night before in their office in Yarmouk, a mostly Sunni district in the western part of the capital.
Al-Moussawi said the bomber detonated his explosives in the car when he reached the end of the funeral procession.
Zafaraniyah resident Talib Bashir said he was part of the procession but left early to take his child home. Then he heard the blast.
"The fire lasted for a long time," Bashir said, noting that cars, an ambulance and several stores were still engulfed in flames hours later.
The bombing came two days after an al-Qaida spokesman threatened more attacks on the Shiite-led government, saying that "our explosives are at the door" of the prime minister.
Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, speaking for al-Qaida's Islamic State of Iraq, told his followers not to be deceived by the number of the Iraqi government troops and their Shiite supporters, because "they are merely beetles and flies." The audio message was posted on the group's website.
The deadliest attack this month took place Jan. 14, when a bomb tore through a procession of Shiite pilgrims heading toward a largely Sunni town in southern Iraq. At least 53 people were killed.
Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Sameer N. Yacoub in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.