The bombing on a Shia religious office comes at a sensitive time, with the country’s fractious Shia, Sunni and Kurdish blocs locked in a crisis that threatens to unravel their power-sharing deal and spill into sectarian tension.
The attacker targeted the Shia Endowment – a government-run body that manages Shia religious and cultural sites – leaving dead and wounded scattered along a main street nearby and badly damaging its headquarters, police and witnesses said.
“It was a powerful explosion, dust and smoke covered the area. At first I couldn’t see anything, but then I heard screaming women and children,” said policeman Ahmed Hassan, who was at a nearby police station when the bomb went off.
“We rushed with other police to help … the wounded were scattered all around, and there were body parts on the main street,” he said.
Security officials said initial evidence pointed to a suicide car bomber. They said the bombing appeared to have been carried out by Islamic State of Iraq, al Qaeda’s Iragi wing, which often uses suicide bombers in its attacks.
The Shia Endowment has recently been caught up in a dispute with the rival Sunni Endowment over control of a key Shia shrine in the Sunni stronghold city of Samarra. An attack on the Al Askari shrine in Samarra in 2006 sparked sectarian fighting that killed tens of thousands in the two following years.
Last week, a truck bombing in a marketplace, a car bomb and several roadside explosions killed at least 17 people and broke weeks of relative calm in Baghdad, where daily attacks claimed hundreds of victims at the height of the war.
In mid April, more than 20 bombs hit cities and towns across the country, killing 36 people. Islamic State of Iraq claimed responsibility for those attacks.
Since the last American troops left in December, nine years after the invasion, tensions have been running high in Iraqi politics with critics of Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki threatening to seek a vote of no confidence against him.