HILLA, Iraq (Reuters) - Bombs in two majority Shi'ite Muslim cities in southern Iraq killed 28 people on Thursday, police and hospital sources said, in an attack aimed at spreading sectarian strife in the country.
Scores more were wounded in the blasts, which struck during a month that is of special significance to Shi'ite Muslims, who are often targeted by al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate and other Sunni Muslim insurgents.
Nearly 2,000 people have been killed in Iraq so far this year following last December's withdrawl of U.S. troops, who had invaded in 2003 to overthrow Saddam Hussein.
Although violence is far lower than during the sectarian slaughter of 2006-2007, insurgents have carried out at least one big attack a month this year,
Tensions between Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni factions in Iraq's power-sharing government have been on the rise since the U.S. withdrawl. Rivals of Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki accuse him of trying to monopolise power.
Iraqi officials are also now worried that Islamists may be gaining strength from the conflict in neighbouring Syria, where Islamists have joined the ranks of rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Two explosions near a restaurant in the city of Hilla, 100 km (60 miles) south of Baghdad, killed 28 people, said Nabil Mohammed, the head of a hospital there.
"We started to stop civilian cars asking them to take the wounded to hospital since there were not enough ambulances to transfer them," said 39-year-old Ihsan al-Khalidi, a schoolteacher who was near the scene of the explosions.
Blood, shoes, body parts and wristwatches were scattered around the site of the blast and grieving women pounded their faces and chests, searching for relatives who might have been hurt.
"Shame on the officials who are just sitting in their offices while explosions hit the city every day," Khalidi said.
In the predominantly Shi'ite city of Kerbala, a car bomb near a bus terminal where pilgrims gather killed two people, a spokesman for the local health office said.
Attacks tend to increase during the period when Shi'ites commemorate the death of the Prophet's grandson, Imam Hussein.
On Tuesday, car bombs targeting Shi'ites in mourning processions killed 14 people in Baghdad.
Shi'ites were not the only target on Thursday. In Falluja, a mainly Sunni city 50 km (32 miles) west of Baghdad, three people were killed when a suicide bomber blew himself up in the midst of a group of soldiers who were gathering to get their pay from a state bank, police and health sources said.
A roadside bomb also went off near a checkpoint in the northern city of Mosul, killed one policeman and one civilian, police said.
Additional reporting by Sufyan al-Mashhadani in Mosul, Aseel Kami in Baghdad, Kamal al-Ayash in Falluja; Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Angus MacSwan