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MIDDLE EAST

Blast series rock Baghdad and Kirkuk

Bomb attacks have rocked Baghdad and five northern Iraqi cities, killing at least 23 people and shattering several weeks of uncertain calm.

Almost simultaneous bomb attacks have wracked Baghdad and five northern Iraqi cities, killing at least 23 people. The blasts end several weeks of relative quiet following Iraq's hosting of an Arab League summit last month.

Police and hospital sources said some 10 car and roadside bombs went off, leaving a further 75 people wounded. The blasts unfolded closely, over an hour and a quarter. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but Baghdad's military command spokesman Colonel Dhia al-Wakeel said the series resembled previous attacks by al Qaeda.

Al-Wakeel said Iraq's security forces in charge since US troops withdrew in December were not discouraged. The assailants, he said, were trying to target "the stability that has been achieved recently."

One of Thursday's deadliest blasts was a car-bombing in the northern city of Dibis. Six passers-by were killed, according to police. Two car bombs also hit the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, killing at least four people. In Taji, a roadside bomb exploded as a security patrol drove by, killing one person.

In Baghdad police said there were at least five explosions in mainly Shiite Muslim areas of the capital. In its Amil district a car bomb killed three day laborers. Iraqi Health Minister Majeed Hamad Amin escaped injury when one the roadside devices exploded next to his convoy in Baghdad's central Haifa district. In that incident, two civilian bystanders were killed. At least four of the minister's guards were wounded.

Elusive calm

Violence has declined across Iraq since its peak in 2006 and 2007, but remains persistent amid tensions within Iraq's fragile coalition government.

Map of Iraq showing Kirkuk north of Baghdad

Kirkuk lies north of Baghdad

On March 20, 50 people were killed nationwide in shootings and bombings claimed by an al Qaeda affiliate, the so-called Islamic State of Iraq.

Last Monday, gunmen killed four Shiite farmers on the northern outskirts of Baghdad as they pollinated date trees.

Past attacks have also been blamed on Sunni Arab insurgents who refused to lay down arms after last December's withdrawal of US forces.

ipj/asb (AFP, dpa, AP, Reuters)

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