BAGHDAD (AP) -- A rapid series of attacks spread over a wide swath of Iraqi territory killed at least 50 people on Thursday, targeting mostly security forces in what appeared to be a vicious strike by al-Qaida militants bent on destabilizing the country.
The apparently coordinated bombings and shootings unfolded over four hours in the capital Baghdad -- where most of the deaths occurred -- and 11 other cities. They struck government offices, restaurants and one in the town of Musayyib hit close to a primary school. At least 225 people were wounded.
"What is happening today are not simple security violations -- it is a huge security failure and disaster," said Ahmed al-Tamimi, who was working at an Education Ministry office a block away from a restaurant that was bombed in the Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah in northern Baghdad. He described a hellish scene of human flesh and pools of blood at the restaurant.
"We want to know: What were the thousands of policemen and soldiers in Baghdad doing today while the terrorists were roaming the city and spreading violence?" al-Tamimi said.
It was the latest of a series of large-scale attacks that insurgents have launched every few weeks since the last U.S. troops left Iraq in mid-December at the end of a nearly nine-year war.
The ongoing nature of the violence and the fact that insurgents are able to operate over a wide swath of Iraq to carry out a variety of attacks shows the country is still deeply unstable, despite government assurances it could protect itself when American troops left in December.
The violence points to a dangerous gap in the abilities of the Iraqi security forces that had particularly worried the departing U.S. military: their ability to gather intelligence on insurgent groups and stop them before they launch such deadly attacks. Gathering information on militants and their networks was a key area in which the U.S. military helped their Iraqi counterparts.
Shortly after the withdrawal, a major political crisis with sectarian undertones erupted as well when Shiite-dominated authorities sought to arrest Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on allegations he commandeered death squads targeting security forces and government officials.
While no group immediately claimed responsibility for the latest attacks, targeting security officials is a hallmark of Al-Qaida in Iraq. Such attacks achieve two goals: undermining the public's confidence in the ability of their policemen and soldiers to protect everyday citizens and discourage people from joining or helping the security forces.
Al-Qaida claimed responsibility for a similar strike on Jan. 5 that killed 78 people and mostly targeted Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad, in what was the worst day of violence to shake Iraq in months.
Two government spokesmen declined immediate comment.
A senior Iraqi defense intelligence official said Thursday's attacks appeared to have been planned for at least one month. He predicted they aimed to frighten diplomats from attending the Arab League's annual summit that is scheduled to be held in Baghdad in late March.
Similar fears were part of the reason the League meeting was canceled in Baghdad last year. The defense official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
Nationwide, security forces appeared to be targeted in at least 14 separate attacks, including a drive-by shooting in Baghdad that killed six policemen at a checkpoint before dawn. Police patrols in the capital and beyond also were besieged by roadside bombs and, in once case, a suicide bomber who blew up his car outside a police station in the city of Baqouba, 35 miles (60 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad.
Iraq's police are generally considered to be the weakest element of the country's security forces, and 20 were killed earlier this week by a suicide bomber outside the Baghdad police academy that angry residents blamed on political feuding that is roiling Iraq.
But the latest violence spilled onto commuters, restaurant patrons, passers-by and school children as well.
In the single deadliest strike, a car bomb in Baghdad's downtown shopping district of Karradah killed nine people and wounded 26. The blast effects could be felt blocks away, shaking buildings and windows. Associated Press TV footage of the scene showed people walking away from the scene, covered in blood.
In Musayyib, a car bomb parked on the street between a restaurant and an elementary school killed one person and wounded 62. Most of the injured were school children, said police and health officials.
The casualties were tallied by local security and hospital officials in the cities where the attacks occurred. Nearly all spoke on condition of anonymity.
Late Wednesday, Iraq's Interior Ministry announced the capture of Waleed Khalid Ali, accused as a top leader of the Ansar al-Sunna insurgent group linked to al-Qaida. The government said Ali was caught trying to enter Iraq from Syria, where al-Qaida groups recently have been surging to assist opposition forces seeking the overthrow of President Bashar Assad.
But the coordinated nature of Thursday's attacks show they likely were planned long before Ali's arrest. A Western diplomatic security official said recent intelligence indicated that an unspecified attack was in the works. The official could not be identified in line with government regulations.
Widespread violence has decreased since just a few years ago when Iraq teetered on the brink of civil war. But bombings and deadly shootings still happen almost daily.
Associated Press Writers Lara Jakes and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.