BAGHDAD (AP) — A bomb ripped through a full Sunni mosque in central Iraq during midday prayers Friday, killing at least 17 people in the latest outburst of deadly violence targeting worshippers during the holy month of Ramadan.
Suicide attacks, car bombings and other violence have killed nearly 200 people since the Islamic holy month of daytime fasting and charity began last week.
The violence is an extension of a surge of attacks that has roiled Iraq for months, reviving fears of a return to the widespread sectarian bloodshed that pushed the country to the brink of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Diyala provincial councilman Sadiq al-Husseini said Friday's explosion hit the Abu Bakir al-Sideeq mosque in the town of Wijaihiya, which is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) northeast of Baghdad. He said it killed at least 17.
The blast went off on the left side of the mosque, which was filled with men and children, as worshippers were kneeling during prayers, said 30-year-old Mohammed Faleh, who was praying inside.
Faleh said security forces found a second bomb left near the mosque that they rendered safe with a controlled detonation.
"I stood up to find blood-stained bodies lying on the ground. The Friday prayer turned into a disaster. Whoever left these bombs has no religion," he said.
Diyala province, where the attack occurred, was once the site of some of the fiercest fighting between U.S. forces and insurgents in Iraq. It remains a hotbed for terrorist attacks. The area is religiously mixed and witnessed some of the worst atrocities as Shiite militias battled Sunni insurgents for control in the years after the invasion.
"Terrorism is targeting all sects in Diyala mainly by attacking Sunni and Shiite mosques, funerals and football fields to draw the province into a sectarian conflict. All the victims were civilians," said al-Husseini, the councilman, appealing for calm. "I call on all Diyala residents to show self-restraint."
Police and hospital officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information to media, confirmed the death toll. They also reported that more than 50 were wounded in the explosion, and warned that the number of dead could rise.
The attack struck while Iran's outgoing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, wrapped up a two-day trip to Iraq with visits to Shiite Muslim holy cities of Najaf and Karbala south of Baghdad. There was no indication the mosque blast was related to his trips.
Violence across Iraq has risen sharply since a heavy-handed crackdown by security forces on a Sunni protest camp in the northern town of Hawija on April 23. That raid followed months of rallies by Iraq's minority Sunnis against the Shiite-led government over what they contend is second-class treatment and the unfair use of tough anti-terrorism measures against their sect.
The surge in bloodshed has left more than 2,800 people dead and many more wounded since the start of April.
Attacks on Sunni mosques, for years a relatively rare target in Iraq, have picked up significantly in recent months.
There has been no claim of responsibility for Friday's bombing or many of the other recent attacks.
Sunni extremists such as al-Qaida's Iraq arm that seek to undermine the Shiite-led government are frequently blamed for bombing attacks targeting civilians. They could be behind the Sunni mosque bombings too, hoping to incite a sectarian backlash against Shiites. So could Shiite militias that have been remobilizing following years of relative quiet.
Associated Press writers Adam Schreck and Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.