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In first month after US exit, Iraq's sectarian clashes have killed 170

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"The violent attacks against the Rawafid (the name used for Shiites by Sunni extremists) will continue," Al-Qaeda front group the Islamic State of Iraq said in a statement, while claiming responsibility for attacks on Shiite pilgrims over the past month.

"The lions of the Islamic State of Iraq (will not cease their operations)... as long as the Safavid government continues its war. We will spill rivers of their blood as reciprocity."

The jihadists often invoke Iran's Safavid past, referring to the Shiite dynasty that ruled Persia between the 16th and 18th centuries, and conquered part of Iraq, when denouncing the Baghdad government, which they say is controlled by Tehran.

AP downplays concerns about the campaign devolving into a new phase of sectarian war, but notes that the attacks come at a politically fragile time in Iraq. The Shiite-led government is locked in a political battle with the largest Sunni parliamentary bloc, which boycotted the government after the highest-ranking Sunni official, Vice President Tareq al Hashemi, was charged with terrorism.

Sunnis fear that without the American presence as a last-resort guarantor of a sectarian balance, the Shiite government will try to pick off their leaders one by one, as Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki tries to cement his own grip on power.

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