BAGHDAD -- A wave of more than a dozen car bombings hit central and southern Iraq during morning rush hour on Monday, officials said, killing at least 51 people in the latest coordinated attack by insurgents determined to undermine the government.
The blasts, which wounded scores more, are part of a months-long surge of attacks that is reviving fears of a return to the widespread sectarian bloodshed that pushed the country to the brink of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Suicide attacks, car bombings and other violence have killed more than 3,000 people since April, including more than 500 since the start of July, according to an Associated Press count.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's attacks, but they bore the hallmarks of al-Qaida's Iraqi arm. The group, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, frequently sets off such coordinated blasts in an effort to break Iraqis' confidence in the Shiite-led government.
Police officers said a total of 12 parked car bombs hit markets and parking lots in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad within one hour. They say the deadliest were in the eastern Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, where two separate explosions killed nine civilians and wounded 33 others.
Ambulances rushed to the scene where rescuers and police were removing the charred and twisted remains of the car bombs from the bloodstained pavement. The force of the two explosions lightly damaged nearby houses and shops.
Taxi driver Ali Khalil was passing nearby when the first bomb exploded.
"I heard a thunderous explosion that shook my car and broke the rear window," the 36-year old Khalil said. "I immediately pulled over and didn't know what to do while seeing people running or lying on the ground," he added.
He brought two of the wounded to a nearby hospital before heading back to his home to stay indoors the rest the day. Like many Iraqis, he blamed political infighting and incapable security forces for the deteriorated security situation.
Several hours after the explosions, acting U.N. envoy to Iraq Gyorgy Busztin expressed concern over "the heightened level of violence which carries the danger that the country falls back into sectarian strife."
"Iraq is bleeding from random violence, which sadly reached record heights during the Holy month of Ramadan," added Busztin, referring to the dawn-to-dusk fasting Islamic holy month. He called for immediate and decisive action to stop the "senseless bloodshed."
Ten other bombs around Baghdad, mostly Shiite-dominated suburbs as well as the town of Mahmoudiya 30 kilometers (20 miles) to the south, killed 31 people.
The wave of bombings also extended to Iraq's majority-Shiite south.
Back-to-back explosions by two parked car bombs in an outdoor market and near a gathering of construction workers killed seven civilians and wounded 35 others in the city of Kut, 160 kilometers (100 miles) southeast of Baghdad.
And in the oil-rich city of Basra in southern Iraq, four other people were killed and five wounded when a parked car bomb ripped through a market. Basra is 550 kilometers (340 miles) southeast of Baghdad.
Health officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to release information.
The violence surged after an April crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija that killed 44 civilians and a member of the security forces, according to United Nations estimates. The bloodshed is linked to rising sectarian divisions between Iraq's Sunni and Shiite as well as friction between Arabs and Kurds, dampening hopes for a return to normalcy nearly two years after U.S. forces withdrew from the country.