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Blasts near mosques kill 29 in Iraq

BAGHDAD — A string of bombings targeted Shiite worshippers in the Baghdad area during Friday prayers, killing at least 29 people in an apparently coordinated attack against followers of an anti-U.S. cleric who were blamed for some of Iraq's worst sectarian violence.

The blasts shattered a recent calm and underscored warnings that suspected Sunni insurgents would step up efforts to stoke sectarian violence as the Americans draw down their forces. Despite the violence, July remained one of the calmest months for Iraqis and the least deadly for American forces.

The largest blast was a car bombing near the al-Shoroufi mosque that killed at least 24 people and wounded nearly 30 in the northern neighborhood of Shaab, a former stronghold of the militia led by Muqtada al-Sadr, whose forces were accused of being behind sectarian bloodshed and were routed last year in a U.S.-backed government offensive.

The mosque was seized by Iraqi security forces more than a year ago and has been used as a base after explosives and ammunition were found inside. But worshippers continued to hold weekly Friday prayer services on the street outside. Bloodied prayer rugs and sandals covered the area after the explosion.

Odai Khalil, a 25-year-old mechanic who witnessed the blast, said the explosives were packed inside a taxi at a nearby parking lot.

"After the explosion, worshippers attacked the Iraqi commandos by throwing rocks at them, thinking that they left the car bomb inside the parking lot, but the commandos started shooting heavily into the air to disperse the people," he said.

Nearly simultaneous explosions struck four other Shiite mosques in Baghdad and south of the capital. Four people were killed and 17 wounded near the al-Rasoul mosque in the village of Jisr Diyala and one died and six were wounded at the al-Sadrain mosque in the southeastern Zafaraniyah neighborhood. The details and casualty tolls were reported by police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

All the mosques were Sadrist except the al-Hakim mosque in Kamaliyah, which belongs to a rival Shiite party.

An al-Sadr aide, Amir al-Kenani, called it a coordinated attack against the cleric's loyalists, blaming al-Qaida in Iraq and political parties trying to undermine the movement. Al-Sadr, who is believed to live in Iran, has ordered a cease-fire and is seeking to position himself as a political force before national elections in January.

"We demand that government reopen the al-Shoroufi mosque so a massacre like this won't happen again," al-Kenani said.

In the past, bombings blamed on Sunni insurgents would be followed by mortar attacks and execution-style killings seen as retaliation by the Shiite extremists. U.S. military commanders have said they are optimistic the Shiites will continue to show restraint.

A car bomb also exploded near an outdoor market in a Kurdish area in the disputed city of Kirkuk, killing at least two people, local police officer Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qader said.

The blasts shattered a period of relative calm in the Iraqi capital, raising to at least 308 the number of Iraqis killed in July, according to an Associated Press count. Only three other months — all this year — saw fewer Iraqis killed since the AP began tracking war-related fatalities in May 2005. There were 242 deaths in January, 288 in February and 225 in May.

Seven American troop deaths were reported — the lowest monthly total since the war started in March 2003, according to the AP tally. Rockets struck a U.S. base outside Iraq's second largest city of Basra, but no casualties were reported. Three U.S. soldiers were killed earlier this month in a similar attack at the base.

Persistent violence has raised concerns about the abilities of Iraqi security forces to maintain security gains after U.S. troops withdrew from major urban areas on June 30.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the bombings but they bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida in Iraq. The U.S. military has anticipated that Sunni insurgents would try to re-ignite sectarian bloodshed by provoking the majority Shiites in a bid to reverse Iraq's security gains over the past two years.

The United States has about 130,000 forces in Iraq, with current plans calling for most combat forces to remain in the country until after the Jan. 16 vote. A security pact requires that the rest of the U.S. troops withdraw from the country by the end of 2011. President Barack Obama also has said all combat troops will leave Iraq by the end of August 2010.

Meanwhile, Iraqi police Friday announced they had recovered millions of dollars stolen from a state-run bank in a robbery earlier this week that left eight guards dead. Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said all the money was recovered and added that police have detained some of the robbers.