BAGHDAD // Shootings and bombings across Iraq killed at least 46 people yesterday in attacks officials say were meant to send a message ahead of next week's Arab League summit.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, which also wounded more than 200 people. But authorities have feared Al Qaeda or its Sunni sympathisers would try to thwart the annual Arab League summit.
"Al Qaeda are trying to prove to the world that they still work and are active in Iraq - and that they can stop the summit as well," said Suzan Al Saad, a member of parliament from the National Alliance coalition.
The gathering is to be held in Iraq for the first time in a generation. Plans for Baghdad to host the meeting last year were postponed, in part because of concerns about Iraq's security.
The summit is "a historic moment for Iraq and its success will return Iraq to the Arab world", Ms Al Saad said.
One of the deadliest strikes yesterday hit the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where officials said two car bombs exploded in a crowded shopping and restaurant area. Thirteen people were killed and another 50 were wounded in that attack.
Militants blew up the house of a police official in the western city of Fallujah, planted bombs near the fortified Green Zone and shot up a security checkpoint in Baghdad, set off an explosion at a police station in the northern city of Kirkuk and attacked restaurants and shopping areas in two southern towns.
In all, eight cities were hit in attacks that mostly appeared to target police and government officials. In central Baghdad, a car bomb exploded in the car park opposite the foreign ministry, despite dramatically heightened security measures in the capital in preparation for the March 27-29 summit.
Even with a heavy security presence that was in place weeks ago, militants were able to seemingly strike at will, said an official in the interior ministry.
"This shows how weak and inexperienced the Iraqi forces are," said an official in the interior ministry. "The terrorists are trying to send a message to Arab leaders they are a target that can be reached."
Last week, the government said Iraq would deploy an unprecedented number of security forces to protect the capital for the summit. An estimated 26,000 police and soldiers - including more than 4,000 from Iraq's north and south - are expected to be deployed in Baghdad.
But citizens and lawmakers have questioned whether Baghdad would be safe during the Arab meeting.
Extremists have launched large-scale attacks in Iraq every few weeks for nearly a year. The violence now is nowhere as frequent as it was during the sectarian fighting a few years ago. But the attacks appear to be more deadly than they were before the US military's withdrawal in December.
The last widespread wave of attacks across Iraq, on February 23, killed 55 people and wounded more than 225.
The Iraqi government spokesman, Ali Al Dabbagh, yesterday announced a week-long federal holiday in Baghdad, from March 25-31, when government offices will be shut down.
Officials also will impose a curfew in parts of Baghdad on March 29, when the Arab heads of state fly in, and try to curb violence by shutting off roads near the Green Zone and encouraging people to stay at home.
But that might not be enough, said Ms Al Saad.
Yesterday's attacks, she said, showed that "we know that Al Qaeda is living and breathing in Iraq".
* With additional reporting by Nizar Latif in Baghdad