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Rapid-fire attacks across Iraq kill 50 people

— A rapid series of attacks spread over a wide swath of Iraqi territory killed at least 50 people on Thursday, targeting mostly security forces in what appeared to be a vicious strike by al-Qaida militants bent on destabilizing the country.

The apparently coordinated bombings and shootings unfolded over four hours in the capital Baghdad — where most of the deaths occurred — and 11 other cities. They struck government offices, restaurants and one in the town of Musayyib hit close to a primary school. At least 225 people were wounded.

"What is happening today are not simple security violations — it is a huge security failure and disaster," said Ahmed al-Tamimi, who was working at an Education Ministry office a block away from a restaurant that was bombed in the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah in northern Baghdad. He described a hellish scene of human flesh and pools of blood at the restaurant.

"We want to know: What were the thousands of policemen and soldiers in Baghdad doing today while the terrorists were roaming the city and spreading violence?" al-Tamimi said.

It was the latest of a series of large-scale attacks that insurgents have launched every few weeks since the last U.S. troops left Iraq in mid-December at the end of a nearly nine-year war.

The ongoing nature of the violence and the fact that insurgents are able to operate over a wide swath of Iraq to carry out a variety of attacks shows the country is still deeply unstable, despite government assurances it could protect itself when American troops left in December.

The violence points to a dangerous gap in the abilities of the Iraqi security forces that had particularly worried the departing U.S. military: their ability to gather intelligence on insurgent groups and stop them before they launch such deadly attacks. Gathering information on militants and their networks was a key area in which the U.S. military helped their Iraqi counterparts.

Shortly after the withdrawal, a major political crisis with sectarian undertones erupted as well when Shiite-dominated authorities sought to arrest Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on allegations he commandeered death squads targeting security forces and government officials.

While no group immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, targeting security officials is a hallmark of Al-Qaida in Iraq. Such attacks achieve two goals: undermining the public's confidence in the ability of their policemen and soldiers to protect everyday citizens and discourage people from joining or helping the security forces.

Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for a similar strike on Jan. 5 that killed 78 people and mostly targeted Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad, in what was the worst day of violence to shake Iraq in months.