BAGHDAD -- Car bombs exploded in quick succession yesterday near four Christian churches and the office of the Vatican envoy, killing three people and raising new concerns about sectarian tensions. At least 17 other people were killed in other violence around the country.
No group claimed responsibility for the bombings, which occurred within a half-hour near two churches in Baghdad and two in Kirkuk, 180 miles to the north. The fifth bomb exploded about 50 yards from the Vatican mission in the capital.
Suspicion fell on Islamic extremists such as Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by Jordanian-born terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who have been responsible for massive car bombings and suicide attacks against Iraqi Shi'ite civilians.
The US military announced the death of an American soldier in a roadside bomb blast in Baghdad on Saturday. At least 2,241 US military personnel have died since the war began, according to an Associated Press count.
The attacks on Christian sites occurred amid rising sectarian tensions, including reprisal killings and raids, that threaten to complicate efforts to form a broad-based government after the Dec. 15 parliamentary elections.
''This was a reaction from the al-Zarqawi people against Christians who they believe support the US military in Iraq," senior Shi'ite lawmaker Ali al-Adeeb said. ''Such acts are rejected by Shi'ites and Sunnis alike who have been living together with our Christian brothers in Iraq throughout history."
A prominent Sunni Arab politician, Naseer al-Ani, called the bombings ''terrorist acts."
Three people died in the bombing at the Church of the Virgin in Kirkuk, police said. At least nine people were injured in the bombings, which caused little damage to the Christian buildings.
Despite the relatively low casualty toll, the bombings are expected to raise fears among the country's small Christian minority -- about 3 percent of Iraq's 27 million people. At least 12 people were killed in a series of church bombings in 2004.
Vatican officials had no comment late yesterday.
US officials are pressing the Iraqis to agree on a government that can win the trust of the Sunni Arabs, the minority community that forms the backbone of the insurgency. Such a government is considered essential if the United States and its international partners are to begin bringing their troops home this year.
But neither the majority Shi'ites nor the minority Sunnis seem ready for major concessions in coalition talks. Yesterday, a key Sunni Arab politician accused Shi'ite-led security forces of pursuing a strategy of sectarian ''cleansing" in Baghdad.
''Mosques and houses are empty because clerics and ordinary men are being chased as if there was a sectarian cleansing in Baghdad," Adnan al-Dulaimi told reporters. ''Violence only breeds more violence. I demand that this sectarian sedition be stopped."
Dulaimi, leader of the main Sunni bloc in the next parliament, also said he would oppose awarding posts in the interior and defense ministries, which control state security forces, to Shi'ite religious parties.
Dulaimi's comments followed a series of raids last week by Interior Ministry commandos in majority Sunni neighborhoods in the capital. The government insists the raids are directed against insurgents who have targeted Shi'ite civilians as well as US and Iraqi soldiers and police.