Three car bombs exploded in quick succession in Amarah on Wednesday, killing at least 41 people and injuring 128 in what has been a relatively calm Shiite Muslim city, police and hospital officials said.
The blasts ripped through the main market of the southern Iraqi city, where British forces in April turned over full responsibility for security to the provincial government. Within days, Britain is expected to hand over responsibility for neighboring Basra, the last province under its control, raising the specter of escalating bloodshed throughout oil-rich southern Iraq.
The blasts, which occurred within a 15-minute period, blew out shop doors and shattered windows. Shoes, clothing and torn body parts lay amid the blood.
It was the deadliest attack since August in Iraq, where U.S. officials have reported a 60% decline in violent incidents since they completed a 28,500-troop buildup in June. In recent days, there has been a spate of bombing attacks across the country that have caused double-digit casualties.
Major bombings have been rare in the overwhelmingly Shiite south, which has been spared the worst of the sectarian clashes that have beset Baghdad and other parts of the country.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but synchronized bombings are a hallmark of the Sunni insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. commanders recently warned that Sunni extremists forced out of Baghdad and surrounding areas were moving elsewhere and could strike where security was less robust.
Violence also flares periodically between rival Shiite militias vying for political influence and control of the oil wealth in the region. Two southern governors were assassinated in August and a number of senior security officials have been slain, including Babil province’s popular police chief, who died in a roadside bombing Sunday.
The explosives-rigged cars in the latest attack were parked in a lot opposite the main market in Amarah, the capital of Maysan province, a stretch of marshland and desert bordering Iran.
The blasts reverberated across the city, said Mohammed Alaq, a barber who came running to look for his mother. She left home in the morning to go shopping and had not been heard from since.
“We are very worried about her because the cellphones are not working now for unknown reasons. So all of my brothers and I scattered in different directions looking for her,” he said. “All the people are shocked and can’t believe that their safe city was targeted in this bloody way.”
Witnesses said the first blast occurred about 9.30 a.m. As rescuers and survivors rushed to help, two more bombs exploded in quick succession.
Grocery store owner Saad Yasin watched in horror as two people were shredded before his eyes. “The remains started to fall down near my shop,” he said.
Ali Qassim, a 20-year-old student, saw the carnage unfold from a minibus and jumped out to help.
“I saw people’s bodies ripped into pieces, some of them women and children,” he said later by telephone.
“I feel very sad and depressed because this is the first time we have such a major attack against innocent people.”
Casualties overwhelmed the city’s two main hospitals. Some of the worst cases were transferred to Basra.
Within hours of the blasts, at least five suspects were detained, and the Interior Ministry announced that it was firing the city’s police chief. A curfew was imposed, and Iraqi security forces used loudspeakers to warn residents that there could be more car bombs.
A spokesman for the Maysan government blamed Al Qaeda in Iraq and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s ousted regime.
“This is due to the major defeat incurred by them in Baghdad and other areas of Iraq, so they have decided to attack more stable areas,” Mohammed Saleh said.
Meanwhile, rumors spread through the city that U.S.-led forces, bent on taking control of Maysan, were to blame. The city is a stronghold of anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. His followers have clashed here with police, whose upper echelons are dominated by a rival militia
U.S. commanders say the troop buildup has allowed them to reclaim areas once under the control of Sunni insurgents.
Sadr’s decision in August to stand down his Mahdi Army militia for six months, and the recruitment of tens of thousands of Sunni Arab tribesmen to help police their areas, also have contributed to the ebb in violence, though deadly attacks occur daily.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who attended an economic forum in Basra on Wednesday, called the Amarah attack a “desperate attempt” to draw attention away from recent security successes.
Iraqi officials said the bombings would not affect the government’s plans to take control of Basra province, the nation’s main oil hub, from British forces within days.
“The Iraqi forces have been ready to take the responsibility since two months ago,” said Hakim Mayahi, who heads the Basra provincial council’s security committee.
Britain has one base left on the outskirts of Basra city and has said it will draw down its 4,500 remaining troops to about 2,500 by mid-2008.
U.S. commanders were initially skeptical of the decision but now say that Iraqi security forces appear to be adequately handling the rivalry between Shiite factions in the region.
In other violence, police said a car bomb targeting a passing Iraqi army convoy killed five civilians and injured 13 others in east Baghdad. The convoy was unharmed. Police recovered five more bodies in the city, victims of execution-style shootings.
South of the capital, the Iraqi army found the bodies of two members of a tribal alliance that is fighting militants in Latifiya. Members of such U.S.-backed groups have been repeated targets.
U.S.-led forces killed 14 suspected insurgents and detained 12 others in raids across the country in the last 48 hours, the military said in a statement.
Times staff writers Saif Rasheed, Said Rifai and Raheem Salman in Baghdad and special correspondents in Amarah, Baghdad, Basra and Hillah contributed to this report.