Three car bombs exploded in quick succession in the market district of a southern Iraqi city Wednesday, killing at least 41 people and injuring 150 in an oil-rich Shiite region that has largely escaped sectarian bloodshed, authorities said. It was the country's deadliest bombing in four months.
The police chief in Amarah was fired after the coordinated explosions, and Iraqi soldiers were deployed on the streets. Hospital were overwhelmed with the casualties, which mounted as bodies were pulled from the rubble, according to a provincial spokesman.
Violence has declined dramatically in the capital and elsewhere in Iraq in recent months, and insurgents driven out of Baghdad by the crackdown there have sought to gain a foothold in outlying regions. The Shiite area around Amarah, controlled by British forces until April, has suffered under violent power struggles between rival militias, but has had almost no al-Qaida presence.
The explosions in Amarah were about five minutes apart, beginning with a small blast at the entrance to the market, said Mohammed Saleh, a provincial council spokesman, elaborating on earlier accounts by police and an intelligence official.
Saleh said bystanders gathered to look at the aftermath of that blast, which wounded just a few people, when a second car bomb exploded. A third car blew up nearby as the crowd began to flee, he said.
Most Baghdad markets, which have been hit by a succession of deadly bombings in recent years, are surrounded by blast walls, and shoppers are searched upon entering. In the capital and elsewhere, no cars are allowed to park nearby.
But Saleh said there were no security measures in the market Wednesday.
"There was not a single police car in the street at the time of the explosion," he said. "The provincial council complained many times to the police chief about the lack of security measures in the city, but he would not listen."
The explosions could be felt a half-mile away, said Salam Hussein Jabr, who runs a travel agency in the city. He said his office windows shook and two pictures fell off the walls, and he ran outside to see what had happened.
"This is the first time we've gone through anything like this," said Jabr, a 44-year-old father of three.
Black smoke billowed over the skyline and flames shot out of cars at the site. Rescue crews worked to evacuate the victims. Sandals apparently lost in the rush lay near pools of blood.
Mohammed Sabri, an elementary school principal, called for more security in the city.
"Amarah is a quiet and stable city, but it seems that terrorists have arrived here," he told AP Television News.
Saleh said 41 people were killed and 150 wounded in the explosions. Hospitals were overwhelmed and were turning away people who were not critically hurt, he said. Police imposed an indefinite driving ban and Iraqi soldiers were sent into the streets, he added.
In Baghdad, the Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said the police chief was fired. A provincial official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the police chief ignored warnings Dec. 4 about possible terrorist attacks in Amarah.
Amarah, a Shiite militia stronghold about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, has seen violence among rival groups vying for control in Iraq's oil-rich Shiite southern heartland, which has no significant Sunni population.
No one claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attack, which was similar in style to those carried out by al-Qaida, a Sunni group. U.S. officials have warned recently that al-Qaida might attempt a major attack to try to provoke new sectarian bloodshed. In August, four suicide bombers hit a Kurdish Yazidi community in northwest Iraq, killing some 500 people in the deadliest attack of the war.
Violence has declined sharply since then.
The Iraqi government assumed control of security for Maysan province in April from the British, who plan to relinquish control of neighboring Basra province, the last area under their command, in mid-December.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who was in southern Iraq this week to meet with British troops, was challenged Wednesday in the House of Commons to explain what the acting Liberal Democrat leader called "the continuing tragedy in Iraq."
"Is this why 173 British troops have died, transferring power from the fascist regime of Saddam Hussein to the terror of the fascist militia who run the streets of Basra?" asked Vincent Cable, the Liberal Democrat.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was visiting Basra on Tuesday, said the attack in Amarah was a "desperate attempt" to undermine efforts to stabilize the country. He also called on residents in Amarah to exercise restraint and avoid revenge attacks against the "terrorists who do not want Iraq to stand up again."
In a news conference, U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker said recent attacks highlighted the dangers still facing Iraq, even as violence has declined in Baghdad and elsewhere. "We are by no means declaring a victory against those who would like to disrupt the progress in Iraq," he said.