At least 72 people have been killed and well over 100 wounded in a wave of bombings targeting Shi'as in Iraq -- apparently the deadliest attacks to hit the country in over a year.
A suicide bomber targeting Shi'ite pilgrims near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq killed at least 38 people, just hours after a wave of bombings in Shi'ite parts of northern Baghdad killed dozens of others.
The coordinated attacks bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents linked to Al-Qaeda and contribute to a worsening sectarian crisis in Iraq that erupted as soon as the last U.S. troops left the country in December.
No one immediately claimed responsibility.
Martin Kobler, the top United Nations official in Iraq, condemned the attacks, saying in a statement, "I urge all Iraqis to remain steadfast in the face of those who are using violence in its worst forms to prevent the country and its people from succeeding as a democratic, stable, secure, and prosperous nation.”
In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, "We condemn these acts. We consider them acts of terror. They are desperate attempts by the same kind of folk who have been active in Iraq, trying to turn back the clock."
The bombings come amid a political crisis that saw Iraq's Sunni-backed Al-Iraqiyah bloc on January 3 launch a boycott of parliament and cabinet meetings, accusing Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of ignoring a power-sharing deal meant to ease sectarian tensions.
Last month, Maliki's government issued an arrest warrant for Iraq's top Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who promptly fled to Iraq's semi-autonomous Kurdish region in the north.
Al-Iraqiyah parliament member Nabil Harbo told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on January 5 that the bloc's ministers have three key demands from Maliki that were all part of their power-sharing deal on forming a unity government more than a year ago.
Those include the creation of a national strategic-policy council, passage of planned cabinet statutes, and the balancing of security forces within the Defense Ministry between Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds.
"When the government of national partnership was formed, Iraqiyah agreed with the [the predominantly Shi'ite] National Alliance and the Kurdistan Alliance on a host of provisions," Harbo said. "These provisions have so far not been implemented. Indeed, the Iraqi government has tried to drag its feet on this issue."
Al-Iraqiyah Ministers 'On Leave'
All eight Iraqiyah cabinet ministers, including Finance Minister Rafie al-Esawi, are taking part in the boycott. Ministers who did attend the January 3 cabinet meeting voted to declare them "on leave."
Cabinet Secretary Ali al-Alaq, a member of Maliki's State of Law bloc, told RFE/RL on January 5 that Iraqiyah's boycott had forced Maliki to appoint other members of his cabinet as acting ministers in the interim.
"Maintaining the functions of state institutions should be separated from disagreements between the political blocs on some issues. Otherwise the people, public services and projects will be adversely affected," Alaq said.
"That is why the prime minister has a right to appoint acting ministers to run the respective ministries until the fate of Iraqiyah's ministers is decided. That is, whether they return or not."
Kobler, the UN's Iraq envoy, has urged Iraqi leaders to work together to resolve the political crisis, telling President Jalal Talabani that the UN is ready to support efforts "to promote confidence and trust."
Written by Ron Synovitz, with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq correspondents in Baghdad and Abdelilah Nuami in Prague