At least seven bombs ripped through apartment buildings across Baghdad Tuesday and another struck a market, killing 49 people and wounding more than 160, authorities said.
The explosions were the latest in a five-day spree of attacks in and around the capital that have killed at least 119 people.
The violence, which has largely targeted families and homes, is reminiscent of the sectarian bloodshed that tore Iraq apart from 2005 to 2007 and prompted the United States to send tens of thousands more troops to the front lines. But even since that time, sectarian violence and attacks on civilians have flared in cycles, especially surrounding important events such as the election.
Iraqi and U.S. officials both blamed the latest spike in attacks on al-Qaida insurgents seizing on gaping security lapses created by the political deadlock that has gripped the country since its March 7 parliamentary election failed to produce a clear winner.
"This is blamed on the power vacuum of course, and on how democracy is being raped in Iraq," former prime minister Ayad Allawi told The Associated Press in an interview. His political coalition, Iraqiya, came out ahead in last month's vote, narrowly edging Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's bloc by just two seats.
"Because people are sensing there are powers who want to obstruct the path of democracy, terrorists and al-Qaida are on the go," Allawi said. "I think their operations will increase in Iraq."
He also raised the prospect that the country's political impasse could last for months as both sides try to cobble together the majority needed to govern.
"It could either be formed in two months or it could last four or five months," he said.
Al-Maliki adviser Sadiq al-Rikabi challenged Allawi's suggestion that Iraqi security forces had let down their guard since the elections.
"It is true that terrorism and attacks are attributed to the political situation the country is experiencing, and we have faced terrorism before elections as well," al-Rikabi said. "Some parts are using terrorism events for political goals."
Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, an Iraqi military spokesman for Baghdad's operations command center, said the attackers detonated homemade bombs and, in one case, a car packed with explosives. He said there were at least seven blasts. The U.S. military in Baghdad said there were eight.
Al-Moussawi said is Iraq in a "state of war" with terrorists.
Police and medical officials said the death toll from Tuesday's explosions was at least 49, and that women and children were among the dead. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release information publicly.
The first blasts hit around 9:30 a.m. in the Shula area of northwest Baghdad, striking a residential building and an intersection about a mile away, according to police and hospital officials who also spoke on condition of anonymity.
College student Ali Hussein, 22, was riding the bus to school when one of the Shula bombs exploded. He described "people running in different directions with fear."
"Cars began to collide with one another in the street because of fear," said Hussein, who fled for home after the blast. "We saw a cloud of fire and black smoke rising from a building at the explosion site, and while we were terrified by this explosion, another one took place."
A few minutes later, at 9:45 a.m. a bomb left in a plastic bag exploded at a restaurant in the Allawi district downtown, near the Culture Ministry. Dozens of people gathered at the bomb site in the hours after the explosion, digging through bricks in the hopes of finding survivors.
Several hours later, a parked car bomb exploded in a market, killing six civilians, police and hospital officials.
The bombings were the fourth set of attacks with multiple casualties across Iraq in five days.
On Monday, a Shiite couple and four of their children were gunned down in their home outside Baghdad, while more than 40 were killed Sunday after suicide attackers detonated three car bombs near embassies in Baghdad. On Friday, gunmen went house-to-house in a Sunni area south of Baghdad, killing 24 villagers execution-style.
U.S. military and diplomatic officials have sought to downplay the possibility that Iraq is heading back down the path toward sectarian bloodshed.
"We're obviously concerned but we don't see the parallels with what happened a few years ago," U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Frayne said. "We don't see a sectarian war breaking out again."
He noted that the Friday executions only targeted Sunnis, and are believed to be carried out by al-Qaida, which is a Sunni-based terror group.
Army Lt. Col. Eric Bloom, a U.S. military spokesman, also blamed al-Qaida for all of the attacks, which he described as "random acts of violence."
Experts said it was still too early to speculate on whether the violence signals the onslaught of a return to intense sectarian bloodshed, but voiced concerns that the country's political instability could stoke one.
"These attacks indicate a hopeless effort to mix cards and provoke sectarian dispute among people and turn Iraq again back to square one," said Dr. Hassan Kamil, a political analyst at Baghdad University.
"Politicians are busy in their preparations for the political process and on the other hand we don't have professional security, army and intelligence forces to depend on in keeping security."
Associated Press Writers Hamid Ahmed, Qassim Abdul-Zahra, David Rising and Elizabeth A. Kennedy contributed to this report.