Car bombs target Iraqi Shi'ites, killing at least 43

By Kareem Raheem

BAGHDAD, May 20 (Reuters) - At least 43 people were killed

in car bomb explosions targeting Shi'ite Muslims in the Iraqi

capital and the southern oil hub of Basra on Monday, police and

medics said.

About 150 people have been killed in sectarian violence over

the past week and tensions between Shi'ites, who now lead Iraq,

and minority Sunni Muslims have reached their highest level

since U.S. troops pulled out in December 2011.

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Iraq is home to a number of Sunni Islamist insurgent groups,

including the al Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, which

has previously targeted Shi'ites in a bid to provoke a wider

sectarian confrontation.

Nine people were killed in one of two car bomb explosions in

Basra, a predominantly Shi'ite city 20 km (260 miles) southeast

of Baghdad, police and medics said.

"I was on duty when a powerful blast shook the ground," said

a police officer near the site of that attack in the Hayaniya


"The blast hit a group of day labourers gathering near a

sandwich kiosk," he told Reuters, describing corpses littering

the ground. "One of the dead bodies was still grabbing a

blood-soaked sandwich in his hand."

Five other people were killed in a second blast inside a bus

terminal in Saad Square, also in Basra, police and medics said.

In Baghdad, a parked car exploded in a busy market in the

mainly Shi'ite eastern district of Kamaliya, killing seven

people, police said.

A further 22 people were killed in blasts in Ilaam, Diyala

Bridge, al-Shurta, Shula and Sadr City - all areas with a high

concentration of Shi'ites.

Iraq's delicate intercommunal fabric has come under

increasing strain from the conflict in neighbouring Syria, which

has drawn Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims from across the region into

a proxy war.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's main regional ally is

Shi'ite Iran, while the rebels fighting to overthrow him are

supported by Sunni Gulf powers Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Iraq says it takes no sides in the conflict, but leaders in

Tehran and Baghdad fear Assad's demise would make way for a

hostile Sunni Islamist government in Syria, weakening Shi'ite

influence in the Middle East.

The prospect of a possible shift in the sectarian balance of

power has emboldened Iraq's Sunni minority, embittered by

Shi'ite dominance since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by

U.S.-led forces in 2003.

Thousands of Sunnis began staging street protests last

December against Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, whom

they accuse of marginalising their sect.

A deadly raid by the Iraqi army on a protest camp in the

town of Hawija last month ignited a bout of violence that left

more than 700 people dead in April, according to a U.N. count,

the highest monthly toll in almost five years.

At the height of sectarian violence in 2006-07, the monthly

death toll sometimes topped 3,000.

(Additional reporting by Aref Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed;

Writing by Isabel Coles; Editing by Angus MacSwan)