(CNN) -- Tensions festered in Iraq Wednesday after nearly 50 people died and dozens of others were wounded in a string of bombings mostly in and around Baghdad, police said
The bloodshed occurred during an intense time in Iraq. The country has endured months of escalating violence stemming from decades-old discord between the nation's Sunnis and Shiites, the two largest branches of Islam. And the government says it is gearing up if the Syrian conflict next door escalates.
Seventeen attacks unfolded in and around Iraq's capital, primarily in Shiite areas, police said. Police believe the strikes -- which killed 46 people -- occurred over a two-hour period and appeared to be coordinated.
Violence in the Baghdad area struck 11 locations.
Incidents occurred in a range of neighborhoods, including Kadhimiya, Sadr City, al-Hurriya, and Bayaa. A suicide bomber walked into a restaurant in Mahmadouiya, about 18 miles south of Baghdad, and killed two people.
Separately, three police officers died in a car bombing in Mosul, in northern Iraq.
More than 180 people were wounded in all of the attacks.
Iraqi security forces are conducting an operation called Revenge for the Martyrs, designed to track down al Qaeda members in and around Baghdad.
Jacqueline Badcock, the U.N. secretary-general's deputy special representative for Iraq, said, "no political goal or grievance can possibly justify this daily bloodshed of innocent civilians."
"This relentless wave of senseless killing has left thousands dead since April and reflects the merciless nature of its authors," she said.
The tensions between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites have escalated, especially after an incident last April in Hawija, in northern Iraq, where Iraqi security forces raided a site used by Sunni protesters to demonstrate against the Shiite-led government.
Sunnis have felt politically marginalized under a Shiite-led government since the ouster of longtime leader Saddam Hussein in a 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Sunni protests against the Iraqi government have continued since the Hawija incident.
Iraq's Shiite-dominated government is wary that the Sunni Islamists who've been involved in fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime are targeting the government in Baghdad.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his country's security forces are on high alert amid concerns over Syria. This stance was taken due to fears that a Western military strike on Syria is in the offing after an alleged chemical weapons attack. Syrian rebels blame the attack on al-Assad's government.
"We, as a government, have taken every necessary action from any serious developments that may result from the Syrian crisis and what is being said of an expected strike," al-Maliki said
July was the deadliest month in Iraq in the past five years since the peak of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007. According to the United Nations, 1,057 Iraqis were killed and another 2,326 were wounded in acts of terrorism and violence last month.