BAGHDAD Car bomb attacks killed at least 34 people in Baghdad on Thursday but the Interior Ministry said it would not allow al Qaeda, which it blames for a surge in sectarian violence, to turn Iraq into another Syria.
More than 100 people were wounded in at least eight blasts, one of which was near the "Green Zone" diplomatic complex, part of a wave of bloodshed that has taken the monthly death toll in Iraq to the highest levels in five years.
"Iraq's streets have become a battleground for sectarian people who are motivated by hatred and religious edicts and daring to kill innocent people," the Interior Ministry said in an unusually frank statement.
"It is our destiny to win this battle which is aimed at destroying the country and turning it into another Syria," the ministry said.
Earlier on Thursday the ministry had put the death toll far lower, at three dead and 44 wounded.
Mainly Sunni Muslim rebels have been fighting for more than two years to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose Alawite minority support base is a branch of Shi'ite Islam.
Sunni Muslim militant groups, including al Qaeda, have stepped up their insurgency against Iraq's Shi'ite-led government in the past four months, raising fears of a return to full-blown sectarian conflict 18 months after U.S. troops left.
Police sources said one bomb exploded 200-300 metres (yards) from Baghdad's international zone, close to Iraq's Foreign Ministry. Four people died and 12 others were wounded.
The central zone is a highly-fortified area housing Western embassies including the U.S. mission, and the nearby Iraqi ministry has been a frequent target of attacks.
Since the start of the year, attacks using multiple car bombs have become an almost daily occurrence. Religious holidays have failed to stem the slaughter, as bombers at the weekend targeted families celebrating the end of the Muslim fasting period of Ramadan.
Each of the past four months has been deadlier than any in the last five years, dating back to when U.S. and government troops were engaged in battles with militiamen.
The government has launched a security sweep to try to round up suspected militants and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Wednesday the crackdown would continue.
COMMON CAUSE AGAINST AL QAEDA
The civil war in neighbouring Syria, which has stoked sectarian tensions across the Middle East, has boosted Sunni insurgents in Iraq who are also benefiting from general discontent in the minority Sunni population.
The Interior Ministry described the conflict last month as "open war" and the United States has said it will work closely with the Iraqi government to confront al Qaeda.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, in Washington on Thursday, told Secretary of State John Kerry that the Iraqi people would not succumb to the violence and the government would not allow a lapse into civil or sectarian war.
"There is a clear determination by the Iraqi leadership that really we've been there before, in 2007-2008. We are not going to go there again," Zebari said at the State Department.
Kerry said the United States would help Baghdad deal with the spillover from the Syrian conflict, including weapons flowing out of Syria into Iraq and from Iraq to Syria, as well as to combat the efforts by al Qaeda and by Syria's allies Iran and Hezbollah to recruit Iraqis.
"We are committed to helping Iraq to withstand these pressures and to bolster the moderate forces throughout the region," said Kerry. He also urged Baghdad to address pressing domestic issues that fuel strife.
"There needs to be progress within Iraq on political issues, on economic issues, as well as on the larger constitutional issues that have been outstanding for too long," said Kerry.
Thursday's car bombs targeted districts in central, eastern, northern and southern Baghdad, including Shi'ite areas, police said.
Five people died when a bomb exploded near a traffic police station in Baladiyat, in eastern Baghdad, crushing the roofs of nearby vehicles, their wheels splayed on the ground by the force of the explosion.
"Windows were smashed and my children started screaming and running everywhere, smoke and dust filled my house," said a man wounded by flying shards of glass. He declined to be named.
"The politicians are responsible for the deterioration in security," he said.
In the al-Shurta al-Rabaa district, a bomb on a tractor trailer carrying gas cylinders killed four people while in Husseiniya, on the capital's northeastern outskirts, a minibus exploded in a repair shop, killing three, police said.
The Interior Ministry said security forces were cracking down on "hotbeds of terrorism" outside Baghdad, raiding bomb-making factories and recruitment centres for suicide bombers. (Additional reporting by Raheem Salman and Suadad al-Salhy and by Paul Eckert in Washington; Writing by Sylvia Westall; Editing by Jon Boyle and Vicki Allen)