A series of bomb blasts ripped through Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least 20 people. The attacks occurred as Iraq’s military attempted to drive Al-Qaeda fighters out of Sunni-dominated Anbar province, where clashes and airstrikes killed more than 40 people.
The deadliest of the attacks targeting Shias in Baghdad occurred when two parked cars laden with explosives detonated simultaneously near a restaurant and tea house. Officials said the blasts killed 10 people and wounded 26.
Authorities said another car bomb ripped through the capital's Shia eastern district of Sadr City, killing five and wounding 10. A fourth bombing killed three civilians and wounded six in a commercial area in the central Bab al-Muadham neighborhood, officials said. Two other bombings killed two civilians and wounded 13, police said.
The attacks in Baghdad came as Iraqi security forces continued to besiege two key cities in the country's western Anbar province after they were taken over by an armed group with links to Al-Qaeda called the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The latest violence there has claimed dozens of lives. Twenty five ISIL members were killed in an air strike, according to the Iraqi military. Twenty two Iraqi soldiers and 12 civilians were also killed in clashes, with 58 wounded, according to Iraqi officials.
Clashes have been taking place since Monday in Anbar's provincial capital, Ramadi, and nearby Fallujah between Al-Qaeda fighters and pro-government Sunni tribesmen.
Ramadi was a stronghold of Sunni insurgents during the U.S.-led war. Al-Qaeda militants largely took both cities over last week and have been fending off incursions by government forces there since.
Earlier on Sunday, a senior Iraqi military commander said that it will take a few days to fully dislodge Al-Qaeda-linked fighters from the two cities.
Lt. Gen. Rasheed Fleih, who leads the Anbar Military Command, told state television Sunday that "two to three days" are needed to push the militants out of Fallujah and parts of Ramadi. Fleih added that pro-government Sunni tribes are leading the operations while the army is only offering aerial cover and logistics on the ground. He didn't elaborate on the operations.
"The quiet and safe life that is sought by the Anbaris will not be completely restored before a few hours or two to three days, God willing," Fleih said.
ISIL is also one of the strongest rebel units in Syria, where it has imposed a strict version of Islamic law in territories it holds and kidnapped and killed anyone it deems critical of its rule. Also on Saturday, it claimed responsibility for a suicide car bombing in a Shia-dominated neighborhood in Lebanon.
Tensions in Anbar have run high since Dec. 28, when Iraqi security forces arrested a Sunni lawmaker sought for terrorism charges. Two days later, the government dismantled a months-old, anti-government Sunni protest camp, sparking clashes with militants.
On Sunday Secretary of State John Kerry said that the U.S. would support Iraq in its combat with Al-Qaeda, but without sending troops on ground, telling reporters, “this is their fight.”
The U.S. was "very, very concerned" by the fighting, Kerry said as he left Jerusalem for Jordan and Saudi Arabia on Sunday to discuss his effort to broker talks between Israelis and Palestinians. The U.S. recently supplied the Iraqi government with hellfire missiles.
Meanwhile, Republican senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham released a strongly worded statement condemning the violence in Iraq, partially blaming the Obama administration for the increased instability.
“When President Obama withdrew all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, over the objections of our military leaders and commanders on the ground, many of us predicted that the vacuum would be filled by America's enemies and would emerge as a threat to U.S. national security interests. Sadly, that reality is now clearer than ever,” the statement said.
Until 2013, violence had remained lower than at its height in 2007. But Iraqi violence spiked in April after the government staged a deadly crackdown on a Sunni protest camp.
According to the United Nations, Iraq had the highest annual death toll in 2013 since the worst of the sectarian bloodletting began to subside in 2007. The U.N. said violence killed 8,868 people last year.
Al Jazeera and wire services