BAGHDAD (AP) — Militants unleashed a wave of car bombings in Iraq on Tuesday, killing at least 34 people and sending thick, black smoke into the Baghdad skies in a show of force meant to intimidate the majority Shiites as they marked what is meant to be a joyous holiday for their sect.
The attacks came nearly two weeks after Iraqis cast ballots in the country's first parliamentary election since the U.S. military withdrawal in 2011. No preliminary results have yet been released, deepening a sense of uncertainty in a country strained by a resurgence of violence.
It was the deadliest day in Iraq since April 28, when militant strikes on polling stations and other targets killed 46.
An al-Qaida spin-off group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant claimed responsibility for the attacks, adding that they were in retaliation for military operations being carried out by government forces in Fallujah.
"We tell the spiteful Shiites and their government that we will save no efforts to target your gatherings and centers in all over Baghdad," said the statement.
The authenticity of the statement could not be independently verified, but its style was consistent with previous statements.
The militant group, made up of Sunni Muslim extremists, has strengthened control over parts of western Iraq, including the city of Fallujah and parts of Anbar provincial capital of Ramadi, since late December. It seeks to undermine the Shiite Muslim-led government's efforts to maintain security across the country. Coordinated car bomb attacks against Shiites, whom it considers heretics, are one of its favorite tactics.
All of Tuesday's blasts were caused by explosives-laden vehicles parked in public areas. They coincided with the Shiite communities' celebration of the birthday of Imam Ali, the Prophet Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law and the sect's most sacred martyr.
Two blasts hit Baghdad's poor Shiite district of Sadr City, killing six people and wounding 13, according to police. Associated Press journalists on the scene shortly after one of the bombings saw black smoke rising as ambulances rushed to the scene, sirens wailing. Firefighters struggled to extinguish the fire as security forces sealed off the area.
A short while later, a car bomb exploded in a commercial street in the capital's eastern district of Jamila, killing three people and wounding 10. Police said a fourth car bomb went off near a traffic police office in eastern Baghdad, killing four people and wounding seven.
Juice shop owner Haithem Kadhum was rushing home to Sadr City to check on his family after hearing of the attacks when he was struck by the explosion in Jamila. Flying shrapnel struck him in the shoulder.
"I got out of the car and I saw dead and wounded people on the ground. Everybody was in panic," Kadhum said after being treated at a nearby hospital.
Other blasts struck commercial areas in downtown Baghdad, in the eastern districts of Ur and Maamil, and in the southern Dora district. Those attacks together killed 15 and wounded 45, according to police.
Yet another parked car bomb exploded in the afternoon in Balad, a largely Shiite town surrounded by Sunni areas some 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of the capital. That blast killed six and wounded 17, police said.
Medical officials confirmed the casualty figures. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to media.
Iraqis went to the polls on April 30 in the first national-level election since American troops left the country. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who is seeking a third term on a law-and-order platform, hailed the strong turnout as a rejection of terrorism.
It was a theme the British Embassy reiterated in condemning Tuesday's bloodshed.
"Two weeks ago the Iraqi people showed their clear support for a peaceful, democratic process by voting in large numbers. This was a clear rejection of the terrorists seeking to destabilize Iraq," said Britain's charge d'affaires, Mark Bryson-Richardson.
Iraq's Independent Election Commission has said that vote counting is still underway. It has not yet set a date to announce final results.
A coalition led by al-Maliki is expected to win most the seats of the 328-member parliament, but not a majority. He would have to approach other parties to cobble together a coalition to form the next government.
Iraq has seen a spike in violence since April 2013, with the death toll climbing to its highest levels since the worst of the country's sectarian bloodletting in 2006-2008. The U.N. says 8,868 people were killed in 2013, and more than 1,400 people were killed in January and February of this year.
Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin and Murtada Faraj in Baghdad and Adam Schreck in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed to this report.