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Christmas bombings kill 34 in Iraq

By Kareem Raheem

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - At least 34 people were killed in three bombings in Christian areas of Baghdad on Wednesday, including a car bomb that exploded as worshippers were leaving a Christmas service, Iraqi police and medics said.

Elsewhere in Iraq, at least 10 people were killed in three attacks that targeted police and Shi'ite pilgrims, police said.

Iraq is enduring its deadliest violence in years, reviving memories of the sectarian bloodshed between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims that killed tens of thousands in 2006-07.

The day's deadliest incident occurred in the Doura district of southern Baghdad when the car bomb went off as Christians were emerging from a Christmas mass, killing at least 24 people.

Shortly before, two bombs in a crowded market in a separate, mostly Christian area of Doura killed another 10 people.

Ahmed Edan, a policeman on duty in the area of the attacks, said the sound of the first of the two explosions caused worshippers to leave the church.

"A car parked near the church exploded when the families were hugging each other goodbye before leaving. The blast was powerful," he said.

"Bodies of women, girls and men were lying on the ground covered in blood. Others were screaming and crying while they were trying to save some of their wounded relatives."

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks in Baghdad, which also wounded 52 people.

Iraq's fast-dwindling Christian minority has been a target of al Qaeda Sunni militants in the past, including a 2010 attack on a church that killed dozens of people.

U.S. CONDEMNS "SENSELESS" ATTACKS

The U.S. embassy in Baghdad condemned the bombings, saying in a statement that Christians in Iraq had suffered "deliberate and senseless targeting by terrorists for many years, as have many other innocent Iraqis".

Al Qaeda-linked militants have stepped up attacks on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's Shi'ite-led government and anyone seen as supporting it in recent months. More than 8,000 people have been killed this year, according to the United Nations.

Car bombs, shootings and suicide attacks killed scores of Shi'ite pilgrims in the week before the Shi'ite holy day of Arbain, which coincided with Christmas Eve this year.

On Wednesday, a bomb struck a minibus in southern Baghdad carrying pilgrims back from the Shi'ite holy city of Kerbala, killing three and wounding eight, police and medics said.

To the west of Tikrit, 150 km (95 miles) north of Baghdad, gunmen killed three policemen on patrol, police sources said.

A bomb exploded near a football pitch in the town of Ishaqi, 100 km north of the capital, killing four people, including two policemen, and wounding eight, police said.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad and Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit; Writing by Alexander Dziadosz, editing by Alistair Lyon and David Evans)

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