BAGHDAD – A car bomb exploded Wednesday near a crowded ice cream parlor in a Shiite neighborhood of northern Baghdad, killing at least 34 people and wounding 72 in one of the deadliest attacks in weeks.
Iraqi security forces cordoned off the bombing site as ambulances, their sirens wailing, ferried the dead and wounded to nearby hospitals. Witnesses said people ran frantically from the scene, terrified that another bombing might follow.
“These are desperate attempts to divide the Iraqi people,” said Hamdallah Ali Rikabi, a neighborhood official in a movement loyal to Muqtada al-Sadr, a Shiite cleric whose followers once controlled the area. “But they have learned from their past.”
A series of suicide bombings struck predominantly Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad last month, making April the most violent month this year and fueling speculation that Sunni insurgents might be trying to instigate the sort of sectarian conflict that plunged Iraq into chaos in 2006 and 2007.
Civilian casualties have mounted each month this year, as the United States prepares to withdraw combat troops from cities by June 30.
But for days this month, amid a lull in the bombings, Baghdad’s most formidable problems had seemed to be traffic sometimes snarled for a mile before omnipresent checkpoints and the heat of an early summer.
In one neighborhood, graffiti that once heralded God, insurgents and Shiite militias had given way to a celebration of a soccer team. But even there, residents acknowledged that the violence had probably only subsided, not ended.
“There is always fear,” said Rasmiyah Taha Mohammad, 75, who was forced out of her house in the neighborhood of Hurriyah in 2006 and had recently returned. “There are bombings, and there are still killings.”
Iraqi officials have blamed remnants of the Baath Party and Sunni insurgents for the recent attacks, although they have insisted that security forces have restored calm.
The bombing came as U.S. troops have begun closing outposts in Baghdad and moving to large bases outside the cities in accordance with an agreement between the United States and Iraq that set a deadline for the withdrawal. Under the agreement, U.S. combat troops must leave urban areas by June 30, although some troops are expected to remain in Baghdad and Mosul.
Iraqi forces will then be charged with security in Baghdad and other cities.