BAGHDAD (AP) — A wave of explosions tore through overwhelmingly Shiite cities south of Baghdad shortly before the Muslim faithful broke their Ramadan fasts, killing at least 23 and wounding dozens, according to officials, part of a surge of violence that is raising fears Iraq is sliding back toward full-scale sectarian fighting.
The coordinated attacks followed shootings and bombings in the north earlier in the day that killed six others.
Insurgents have been pounding Iraq with bombings and other attacks for months, the country's worst eruption of violence in half a decade. The pace of the killing has picked up since the Muslim holy month Ramadan began Wednesday, with daily mass-casualty attacks marring what is meant to be a month of charity and reflection.
Sunday's explosions struck shortly before the evening iftar meal that ends the daylong fast during Ramadan.
Violence in Iraq has risen to its deadliest level since 2008, with more than 2,700 people killed since the start of April.
The spike in violence is fueling fears that Iraq is again heading toward the widespread sectarian killing that peaked in 2006 and 2007, when the country teetered on the brink of civil war. Attacks often increased during Ramadan during the height of the insurgency that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
At least eight people were killed and 15 were wounded in the southern port city of Basra when a car bomb and then a follow-up blast went off near an office of a Shiite political party, according to two police officers.
Police reported additional explosions that left four dead in Karbala, five in Nasiriyah and six in Musayyib. Hospital officials confirmed those casualty tolls.
Officials say a powerful explosion also struck the cities of Kut, but they were unable to provide casualty figures.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information to reporters.
Earlier in the day, police said gunmen killed two soldiers in an assault on their security checkpoint in the restive city of Mosul, 360 kilometers (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad.
Hours later, a roadside bomb killed a municipal council member and his son in a town near Mosul. Gunmen in another area just south of Mosul also sprayed a security checkpoint with bullets, killing two policemen.33
Hospital officials confirmed the death toll. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to talk to the media.
There has been no claim of responsibility for the recent wave of attacks, but Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida's Iraq branch, are believed to be responsible for much of the killing. They frequently target Shiites, security forces and civil servants in an effort to undermine the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
Also on Sunday, a spokesman for Iraq's prime minister said that outgoing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad plans to visit Iraq later this week. It will be the Iranian leader's second visit to neighboring Iraq while in office.
Iraq's Shiite-led government has strengthened ties with Tehran since the toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Moussawi, said Ahmadinejad plans to arrive for a visit to Iraq on Thursday. He said Ahmadinejad would meet with senior Iraqi officials and visit Shiite holy shrines in Najaf and Karbala during the two-day visit.
Ahmadinejad, who leaves office in August, visited Iraq for the first time in March 2008.
Associated Press writer Nabil al-Jurani in Basra, Iraq, contributed.