A bomb hidden in a packed Baghdad market for motorcycles killed as many as 22 people Friday, the latest in a string of attacks that seem aimed at undermining the government before next week's deadline for U.S. forces to exit Iraqi cities.
In the last week, more than 150 people were killed in two attacks alone in Baghdad and northern Iraq. Another bombing killed seven people Thursday at a bus station in a western district of Baghdad.
The explosion Friday was not far from the Abdul Qadir Gilani shrine, one of the oldest Sunni Muslim mosques in Baghdad. Most of the recent attacks have targeted Shiite Muslim districts, but the latest struck a market that is popular with both Sunnis and Shiites.
Police gave conflicting death tolls: One officer said 22 were killed, and another said 13.
"I saw some bodies and parts of motorcycles flying in the air at the moment of the explosion," vendor Ali Khudair Abbas, 29, said from his hospital bed. He described watching two young men die next to him in the emergency room.
Abbas said he had hesitated before heading to the market because of the recent violence in Baghdad, but decided he couldn't afford not to go. He was 20 to 30 yards away when the bomb exploded amid rows of motorcycles, sending metal flying.
"I wonder why such a place is targeted! We are not army or police. We are not Americans. All of those coming to the market were poor . . . people hoping to get some money and return to their families," he said.
In the afternoon, the market was abandoned except for two men on the roadside selling sodas from a cooler.
Bent metal girders and a mangled bicycle in the empty dirt lot were the only indication that a bomb had exploded.
Sattar Dahel Abed said he had seen four of his friends die. He pointed to an abandoned cooler, still filled with water and soda cans, that he said belonged to a man named Sayed Abu Mohammed and his two sons, all of whom died in the blast.
Abed said a policeman had ordered him to move his cart from the center of the market, inadvertently saving him from the blast.
He worried about the days ahead.
"It's going to get worse," Abed said. A friend standing next to him, Dahar Shaban, nodded and added, "It's better for the Americans to stay."
A second blast, in the Shiite neighborhood of Risala in west Baghdad killed one person and wounded three, police said.
In Anbar, a mainly Sunni province west of Baghdad, gunmen tried to kill an advisor to the governor. Five policemen were killed outside Fallouja in Anbar the day before, police said.
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has said he expects armed groups to try to discredit his administration as Iraqi security forces take on full responsibility for protecting cities. Maliki, who has staked his political future on maintaining the security gains of the last two years, has a great deal to lose if violence spirals out of control.
National elections are less than seven months away. Maliki has declared June 30, the deadline for the Americans to pull back, a national holiday, comparable to other milestones in modern Iraq's history, such as the 1920 uprising by Sunni and Shiite tribes against the British.
"This accomplishment is historic," Maliki said during a meeting with Iraqi journalists that was broadcast on state television late Wednesday, hours after a bomb killed 78 people at a bird market in Baghdad's Sadr City, a Shiite district.
He repeated what has become a theme in recent weeks: Armed groups will challenge the government.
"They will try to kill the joy inside the hearts of Iraqis," Maliki said.
"Be certain, the Iraqi forces are able to control the situation."
Wednesday's bombing was not a suicide attack, generally the hallmark of Sunni extremists. Some residents theorized that it might have been carried out by a Shiite faction aiming to destabilize Sadr City.
Others blamed the Sunni-dominated group Al Qaeda in Iraq, while the movement of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr blamed both the Americans and the Iraqi army.
Since Iraq regained control of its security from the Americans in January, U.S. forces have ceded more responsibilities and handed over at least 150 bases around the country to Iraqi forces.
All U.S. troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by the end of 2011, according to a security agreement signed late last year.
Times staff writers Saif Hameed, Caesar Ahmed and Raheem Salman contributed to this report.