NAJAF, Iraq, Dec. 19 -- Explosives packed in vehicles tore through crowds gathered in Iraq's two most sacred Shiite cities Sunday, killing at least 64 people and wounding scores more in what many Iraqis fear may be a harbinger of the carnage promised by insurgents ahead of the country's Jan. 30 elections.
The bombings in Najaf and Karbala appeared designed to inflict the greatest number of civilian casualties possible, the explosives detonating within walking distance of the tombs of Shiite Islam's most revered saints. With macabre effect, the blasts demonstrated yet again that insurgents, usually operating in Baghdad and Sunni regions in central Iraq, could extend their deadly reach into the heartland of Iraq's Shiite majority.
The scenes that ensued have become all too familiar in Iraq: Streets were strewn with the twisted and charred wreckage of cars, as crowds wandered along the destruction with dazed, uncomprehending looks. Chunks of concrete were ripped from buildings and hurled onto ground soaked in rain, blood and cinders, framed in gray, stormy skies.
"These attacks aim to destroy the country and the holy sites. This is terrorism against Shiites," said Fadhil Salman, 41, the owner of the Ghufran Hotel in Najaf. "They want to foil the elections, but this won't deter us."
The bombings were the bloodiest episodes on a grim day across Iraq.
On one of Baghdad's most dangerous streets, about 30 gunmen ambushed a car carrying workers of the Iraqi electoral commission, dragged them into the street and then killed them. In a separate incident, previously unknown groups threatened to kill 10 Iraqis they said worked for a U.S. contractor. Images of the blindfolded men, in civilian clothes and seated before a wall, were broadcast on Arab satellite television.
The blasts in Najaf and Karbala occurred about an hour apart. The first tore through a crowded bus station in Karbala at 1:30 p.m., burning at least seven minibuses and shattering windows along the street. At least 14 people were killed and 50 were wounded, said Ali Hussein, a doctor at the city's Husseini Hospital.
Witnesses reached by telephone said body parts littered the streets. Firefighters tried to put out blazes ignited by the blast, and sirens echoed through the streets as ambulances ferried victims to hospitals. There were conflicting reports about whether the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber.
The explosives detonated about 300 yards from the twin, gold-domed shrines of Hussein and Abbas, the destination of hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from Iraq, Iran and elsewhere. A police training academy was in the vicinity, news agencies said. Such sites have been common insurgent targets.
The attack in Karbala followed a bombing Wednesday in the city that killed 10 people in an apparent attempt on the life of a representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraq's most influential religious leader. The man was wounded in the legs.
The Sunday blast was the deadliest attack in Karbala since March 2, when a series of suicide bombings during Ashura, one of Shiite Islam's holiest days, killed more than 100 people.
"God saved us," said Abu Ahmed, an employee of Kawther Transportation Co., whose office was just 10 yards from the blast. He was cut by flying glass.
"All the dead and wounded were civilians," he said by telephone. "But this won't stop the people from returning to their normal lives."
At 2:30 p.m., the second car bomb detonated in Najaf's Maidan Square, a busy stretch of shops several hundred yards from the tan brick shrine of Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, considered by Shiites to be his heir. At least 50 were killed and 91 were wounded, said Hussein Hadi Ali, a doctor at Najaf General Hospital.