18 car bombs kill 58 in Iraq

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BAGHDAD -- More than a dozen explosions, mainly from car bombs, ripped through Iraqi marketplaces, parking lots, a cafe and rush-hour crowds Monday, killing at least 58 people and pushing the nation's death toll for the month of July toward the 700 mark, officials said.

The bombings -- 18 in all -- are part of a wave of bloodshed that has swept across the country since April, killing more than 3,000 people and worsening the already-strained ties between Iraq's Sunni minority and the Shiite-led government. The scale and pace of the violence, unseen since the darkest days of Iraq's insurgency, have fanned fears of a return to the widespread sectarian bloodletting that pushed the nation to the brink of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

With two days left in July, the month's death toll now stands at 680, by Associated Press count. Most of those have come during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of dawn-to-dusk fasting that began July 10, making it country's bloodiest since 2007.

"Iraq is bleeding from random violence, which sadly reached record heights during the holy month of Ramadan," said acting U.N. envoy to Iraq, Gyorgy Busztin. He said the killings could push the country "back into sectarian strife," and called for immediate and decisive action to stop the "senseless bloodshed."

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's attacks, but the Interior Ministry blamed al-Qaida's Iraqi branch and accused it of trying to widen the rift between Sunnis and Shiites. "The country is now facing a declared war waged by bloody sectarian groups that aim at flooding the country with chaos and reigniting the civil strife," the ministry said in a statement posted on its website.

Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaida's Iraqi branch, known as the Islamic State of Iraq, often use coordinated blasts such as those Monday to try to break Iraqis' confidence in the Shiite-led government and stir up sectarian tensions.

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad condemned Monday's attacks, and stressed that the United States "stands firmly with Iraq in its fight against terrorism."

Iraq's violence escalated after an April crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija that killed 44 civilians and a security forces member, by U.N. estimate.

Monday's attacks stretched from Mosul in the north to Baghdad in central Iraq and Basra in the south. In the capital alone, a dozen car bombs struck at least nine neighborhoods -- all but two of them predominantly Shiite -- in the span of an hour, killing at least 37 people, police said. The deadliest blasts hit the eastern Shiite slum of Sadr City, where two bombs killed at least nine civilians and wounded 33 others.

A blast in the town of Mahmoudiyah outside of Baghdad killed three more people.

Car bombs that struck an outdoor market and near a cluster of construction workers killed at least seven civilians and wounded 35 in Kut, a city some 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, while a blast near an outdoor market in Samawa killed three and wounded 14, officials said.

Another car bomb in a marketplace in the Basra, some 340 miles southeast of Baghdad, killed four people and wounded five, according to police.

Outside the northern city of Mosul, a major flashpoint in the recent surge of violence, a suicide bomber rammed his explosives-laden car into a military post, killing a soldier and wounding three others.

Three people died and nine were wounded when a bomb went off Monday night inside a small cafe in Madain, about 14 miles southeast of Baghdad.

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