BAGHDAD - A wave of attacks against Shias killed at least 68 people on Thursday, the worst toll in nearly five months, as Iraq grappled with a weeks-long political row that has stoked sectarian tensions.

The violence, which also wounded more than 100, comes two weeks after a crisis erupted when Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a Sunni, was charged with running a hit squad soon after US troops pulled out.

Thursday’s attacks, which targeted only Shias, were quickly condemned by parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, as well as by Iraq’s neighbour Iran. “Political leaders fight each other for power, and we pay the price,” said Ahmed Khalaf, a labourer who was near the site of attacks in the north Baghdad neighbourhood of Sadr City.

“How is it our fault if Hashemi is wanted, or someone else is wanted? Why should we pay instead of them?”

The worst incident saw at least 45 people killed by a suicide attack on the outskirts of the southern city of Nasiriyah as pilgrims were walking to the shrine city of Karbala for Arbaeen commemorations. “Hospitals in Nasiriyah have received 45 killed and 68 wounded,” said Hadi Badr al-Riyahi, head of the provincial health department in Dhi Qar, of which Nasiriyah is the capital. Arbaeen marks 40 days after the Ashura anniversary. Five bomb attacks also struck two Shia neighbourhoods of northern Baghdad, killing 23 people and wounding dozens more. In Kadhimiyah, two car bombs exploded at around 9:00 am at adjoining intersections, said officials from the interior and defence ministries. The blasts killed 14 people and wounded 37 others, the defence official said, while the interior ministry source put the toll at 15 dead and 31 wounded.

Several nearby vehicles and shops, as well as the facade of a newly built hotel, were badly damaged, an AFP journalist said. “Where are the security forces?” shouted 60-year-old Ashur Abdullah at Al-Zahra intersection in Kadhimiyah.

“Where are the checkpoints? How did this happen here? The responsibility lies with the security forces.”

In Sadr City, a booby-trapped motorcycle exploded at around 7:00 am near a group of day labourers waiting to pick up work, killing seven and wounding 20 others, the interior ministry official said.

A short time later, twin roadside bombs detonated near the district’s main hospital as victims were being ferried in, killing two more people and wounding 15, the official said.

The defence ministry official confirmed the toll.

Security forces cordoned off the scenes of the blasts, and largely refused to allow journalists to enter, sparking the ire of residents.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has backed off from threats to fire ministers from the Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc who have boycotted the cabinet, the latest move in an apparent toning down of the crisis.

The stand-off was sparked by a decision to issue an arrest warrant for Hashemi on terror charges.

Hashemi, who is holed up in the northern autonomous Kurdish region, denies the charges and his Iraqiya party has boycotted the cabinet and stayed away when parliament reopened on Tuesday. Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlak, also a member of Iraqiya, has decried Maliki as a dictator “worse than Saddam Hussein,” and the premier has called for him to be sacked. UN special envoy Martin Kobler, in a statement on Wednesday, “expressed concern about the current political stalemate in the country,” and US Vice President Joe Biden has urged dialogue among top Iraqi leaders.

On December 18, US forces completed their withdrawal from Iraq, where there were once nearly 170,000 American troops on 505 bases.