BAGHDAD - A sharp rise in attacks on Sunni holy sites in Iraq is feeding fears that the country could spiral into a new round of sectarian violence similar to the bloodletting that brought Iraq to its knees in 2006 and 2007.
Majority Shiites control the levers of power in post-Saddam Hussein Iraq. Wishing to rebuild the nation rather than revert to open warfare, they have largely restrained their militias over the last five years or so as Sunni extremist groups such as al-Qaeda have targeted them with occasional large-scale attacks.
That may now have changed.
At least 29 Sunni mosques were attacked between mid-April and early May, according to Mahmoud al-Sumaidaie, the deputy head of Iraq's Sunni Endowment, which oversees the sect's holy sites. At least 65 Sunni worshipers were killed, according to a tally compiled by the Associated Press from police reports.
By contrast, two Shiite mosques were hit in bombings that killed one person over the same period, police and hospital officials said.
In a sign of increasing fears by the Shiite-led government that the country might be descending into sectarian strife, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki warned last week that terrorists and extremist groups were taking advantage of the turmoil by targeting "certain areas and mosques."
"The attempts to stir sectarian strife again by warlords, terrorists, and militia leaders will not succeed and we will confront them with full force," he said.
Even if the will is there, al-Maliki's government is considered too weak to ensure security and control militias and other extremist Shiite groups that are allegedly linked to and partly financed by Iran.
And many contend that al-Maliki's government planted the seeds for more sectarian tension by becoming more aggressive toward Sunnis after the U.S. withdrawal in December 2011.
The matter came to a head April 23 after government troops moved against a camp of Sunni demonstrators in the town of Hawija, about 150 miles north of Baghdad. The clashes there sparked a wave of violence across Iraq that has killed more than 230 people.
Al-Sumaidaie suggested the spate of recent attacks on Sunni mosques might be aimed at pressuring Sunni protesters to quit their antigovernment rallies.
He also accused Shiite militias of being behind the recent attacks on Sunnis, but refused to specify which groups.