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68 Iraqis slain; year's deadliest day

A devastating string of attacks tore through police and government buildings Monday from northern to southern Iraq, killing at least 68 Iraqis and stoking fears that the country's security forces won't be able to control al-Qaida-allied extremists after the scheduled U.S. military withdrawal at year's end.

No group claimed responsibility for the seemingly coordinated assaults -- both suicide bombings and car bombs -- that broke a month of relative calm. Iraqi authorities said the sophistication and planning of the attacks suggested they were the work of al-Qaida in Iraq, the mostly homegrown Sunni Muslim extremist group that warned last week it would undertake new operations soon.

The Iraqi government condemned the violence and imposed a curfew in hard-hit areas, but it didn't address the question echoing throughout Baghdad and Washington: Can the fragile government handle its own security? The question is paramount in the debate over whether to extend the U.S. military's eight-year presence past the Dec. 31 withdrawal date.

Some Iraqi politicians are advocating for a small group of American trainers to stay past the deadline to boost the Iraqi forces, which still face internal challenges from sectarianism, corruption and a lack of equipment. But both Shiite Muslim and Sunni groups have warned that such an extension could lead to an escalation of violence and even more instability. While the Iraqi government has agreed to begin negotiating with the United States on a continued troop presence, the outcome is uncertain.

"The Iraqi security forces are infiltrated, and the intelligence department can't provide information to prevent terrorist operations," complained Shwan Mohammed, a Kurdish lawmaker on Parliament's Security and Defense Committee.

Monday's death toll rose steadily into the night and could go higher as medical workers tended to more than 300 wounded. The day was so bloody and chaotic that authorities couldn't pinpoint how many attacks had occurred; estimates ranged from nine to more than 30. By all accounts, it was the deadliest day this year.

Explosions hit seven provinces, wreaking havoc from the mostly Shiite south to the borders of the mostly autonomous Kurdish territory in the north. The targets included police stations, a counterterrorism office and at least one state building.

The deadliest blasts occurred in Kut, about 100 miles south of Baghdad, where at least 37 people were killed and up to 70 wounded. Police said two bombs had exploded near a busy downtown market.

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