A new wave of car bombs rocked commercial streets in the Iraqi capital on Tuesday, part of a series of attacks across the country that left 33 dead.
Meanwhile, Sunni leaders in Basra said unknown gunmen had shot dead 17 Sunnis in the Shiite-dominated southern city over the past two weeks, following threats to retaliate against them for attacks on Shiites in other parts of Iraq.
Car bomb attacks blamed on hard-line Sunnis aiming to undermine confidence in the Shiite-led government, coming alongside revenge killings by Shiites, are reminiscent of the cycle of violence that brought the country to the brink of civil war some years ago. A surge of bloodshed is now in its fifth month, although overall death tolls are still lower than at the height of the conflict in 2004-2008.
Abdul-Karim al-Khazrachi, who leads the Sunni Endowment that oversees holy sites in Basra, said in a statement issued late Monday that the sect had decided to close down its mosques due to "grave security deterioration and the continuation of the sectarian killings."
Khazrachi told The Associated Press in a phone interview from Baghdad that the killings were preceded by threats, including letters that came with bullets in the envelopes, vowing revenge for insurgent attacks against Shiites across Iraq. The letters demanded that Sunnis leave the province. He said he didn't know the killers' identities.
The slain, he added, included clerics, worshippers and others. The latest was a 70-year-old grocer who was shot dead by gunmen while standing in his store Monday night. A police officer in the city confirmed the 17 killings, speaking anonymously as he was not authorized to talk to media.
Khazrachi said the mosque closure was intended to protect Sunnis but was "also a message to all those in charge of the security to shoulder their responsibilities."
Basra is Iraq's second-largest city. It was controlled by militias for years before the U.S.-backed Iraqi army gained control following a series of offensives in 2008.