BAGHDAD - A suicide car bomber struck a Shiite funeral procession Friday, killing 33 people as suspected al-Qaida militants stepped up apparent efforts to provoke a counterattack by Shiite militias on Sunnis that could pave the way toward open sectarian warfare now that U.S. troops have left Iraq.
The powerful blast - the second deadliest attack in Iraq this month - set stores and cars ablaze alongside scattered flesh and mutilated bodies. It shattered windows and damaged walls in the local hospital, wounding a nurse and four patients. Within minutes, the hospital was scrambling to treat scores of others.
"It was a huge explosion," said Salam Hussein, who was watching the funeral procession from his grocery store.
There was no claim of responsibility for the bombing in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Zafaraniyah in southwest Baghdad, but it resembled previous attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq.
More than 200 people have been killed in bombings and shootings since the U.S. military withdrew from Iraq on Dec. 18. Many of the dead have been Shiite pilgrims and Iraqi police and soldiers.
Al-Qaida and other Sunni extremist groups are thought to be exploiting sectarian tensions in the wake of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's efforts to marginalize the Sunni minority and cement his own grip on power.
Maliki's security forces have launched a widespread crackdown against Sunni politicians, detaining hundreds for alleged ties to the deposed Baath Party. Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, fled to the safety of the Kurdish semiautonomous zone after he was charged with running death squads during the height of the war.
"The attacks are a reaction to political developments in Iraq," said Mustafa Alani, a Geneva-based analyst and an Iraq expert with the Gulf Research Center. "The Sunnis feel the Shiites are squeezing them out of the government, and militants see the sectarian tensions in politics as a golden opportunity to reactivate their terror campaign."
Parade for vets
Hundreds of Iraq war veterans are expected to march in St. Louis today in the nation's first big welcome home parade since the last troops left Iraq in December. The parade was organized by Tom Appelbaumm, 46, a lawyer, and Craig Schneider, 41, a school technology coordinator. Since the end of the war, there have only been small events scattered around the country.