BAGHDAD -- Car bombs struck two outdoor markets and a group of taxi vans in Shia areas across Iraq yesterday, killing at least 36 people and wounding nearly 100 in the bloodiest day in more than two months.

The blasts came as minority Sunnis staged large anti-government protests. Sunni protesters have rejected calls to violence by an al-Qaida-linked group, but there is concern that Sunni insurgents could step up attacks ahead of the April 20 provincial elections -- the first countrywide vote since the U.S. troop withdrawal more than a year ago.

Yesterday, tens of thousands of Sunni protesters rallied in five cities against Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia accused of monopolizing power. Sunnis also complain of official discrimination.

In the city of Samarra, rally speaker Sheik Mohammed Jumaa sent a warning to the prime minister. "Stop tyranny and oppression," he said. "We want our rights. You will witness what other tyrants have witnessed before you."

In Fallujah and Ramadi, demonstrators blocked the main highway to Jordan and performed Friday noon prayers, the highlight of the religious week.

Other rallies were held in Mosul and Tikrit, as part of weekly Sunni demonstrations that were sparked by the December arrests of bodyguards of a senior Sunni politician.

Earlier Friday, suspected Sunni insurgents detonated five car bombs, killing at least 36 people and wounding 97, health and police officials said. It was the bloodiest day of attacks since Nov. 29, when 43 people, many of them Shia pilgrims, were killed in a wave of attacks.

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