Iraqi firemen extinguish a fire following a car bomb that exploded in the northern city of Kirkuk on June 20, 2012 wounding a judge and nine others and leaving two people dead. The bomb exploded as Judge Aziz Abdullah of the Kirkuk criminal court was driving near the Kirkuk Palace hotel in the centre of the city, police Brigadier General Sarhad Qader said. AFP PHOTO/MARWAN IBRAHIM
Iraqi firemen extinguish a fire following a car bomb that exploded in Iraq.   —Photo by  AFP

BAGHDAD: Two bomb blasts nearly 150 kilometers apart killed 14 people Monday night, officials said, as Iraq’s death toll continued to climb in the second bloodiest month since US troops withdrew late last year. 

Officials and experts fear the surge in violence may signal Iraq’s potential descent into a failed state, despite its oil wealth, billions of dollars in foreign aid and years of security assistance from the US.

“This is chaos,” lamented Fadhil Mohammed, who was passing a youth football field in the city of Hillah when an approaching minibus exploded, killing six people. “Police are unable even to secure a popular field that has nothing to do with political parties.”

A political crisis that has gripped Iraq since the day after the American military left in December has heightened sectarian tensions and potentially fueled some of the attacks.

Another 26 people were wounded in the blast in Hillah, about 100 kilometers south of Baghdad and three of them succumbed to their wounds later. Hillah is a mostly Shiite Muslim city just outside the so-called Triangle of Death, an area controlled by al Qaeda during the darkest days of the nation’s bloodshed in the last decade.

Police said a bomb was hidden on the minibus, which was carrying soccer players to evening games. A medic at Hillah Public Hospital confirmed the casualties.

An hour earlier, police said a bomb hidden in a plastic bag exploded outside a pet store in Baqouba, killing five people and wounding three.

Among the wounded were two policemen who were standing beside their car, which was parked nearby, and were hit by the blast's aftershock.

Baqouba, 60 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, is the capital of Diyala province, one of the last areas in Iraq where al Qaeda and its allies remain a strong threat.

The province, sandwiched between Baghdad and Iran, is divided among Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds and has been a sectarian and ethnic flashpoint for years.

A Diyala health directorate confirmed the deaths. All officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.

Together, the attacks bring Iraq’s death toll for June to at least 175. Only January suffered a higher casualty rate, with at least 255 killed in attacks that were widely seen as al Qaeda’s attempt to shock the country immediately after the last American troops left.    Violence has dropped dramatically in Iraq since the peak of the sectarian fighting in 2006-2008 that nearly brought the nation into civil war.

Experts believe the recent increase is the result of government divisions, weak Iraqi security and the absence of international forces, factors that that have emboldened militants.