By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, December 13, 2007
BAGHDAD, Dec. 12 -- Three powerful car bombs exploded one after the other in a southern provincial capital on Wednesday, killing 46 people and injuring 149, local police said. It was the most devastating attack in Iraq since August.
The attack in Amarah in Maysan province was believed to be the city's first mass bombing since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The area is considered one of the country's safest, and the bombings shattered a hopeful, if brittle, lull in Iraq's violence.
Coming as British troops prepare to hand over neighboring Basra province this weekend to Iraqi security forces, the bombings also underscored the fragility of southern Iraq, where rival Shiite groups are battling for influence and control over the region's vast oil resources. The British withdrew from Maysan in April.
Early casualty numbers varied, and police said they expected the death toll to rise. Officials in Amarah said at least 46 were killed, while Brig. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which oversees the national police, put the toll at 26.
Hours after the bombings, the Iraqi government fired Amarah's police chief and said he would be replaced by Khalaf.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was visiting Basra on Tuesday, said the attack was carried out by those seeking to undermine efforts to stabilize the country.
"Any criminal act they commit would only be a desperate attempt to draw attention away from the clear successes and to break through the siege imposed on the defeated groups," he said, the Reuters news agency reported. Maliki 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."
U.S. Embassy spokesman Philip T. Reeker said recent attacks highlighted the dangers that Iraq still faces, even as violence has declined in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country.
"We are by no means declaring a victory against those who would like to disrupt the progress in Iraq," Reeker told reporters.
In Baghdad, a car laden with explosives was detonated by remote control as a crowded minibus passed by, killing six people and injuring 33, police said.
The blasts in Amarah tore through Dijlah Street, a commercial thoroughfare, at around 11 a.m., destroying nearby shops and restaurants, witnesses said. Hamoun Abu Mohammad, 44, was inside his bakery when he heard the series of three explosions.
"The second one, which was the most powerful one, went off in front of Jalal Restaurant, and when people rushed to help the victims, the third bomb detonated," Abu Mohammad said in a telephone interview. He said he ferried victims in his car to a local hospital.
Police sealed off part of Dijlah Street as ambulances took victims to three hospitals, Lt. Col. Khalid Muhammad said. No group asserted responsibility for the attack, but residents immediately blamed Shiite factions, which many believe are behind recent assassinations and kidnappings in the city.
"It is impossible that al-Qaeda is behind these bombings," said Abu Muhannad, 30, a vendor at a vegetable market, who did not want to give his full name. "We have not heard of any existence of al-Qaeda here."
Abdul Jabar, 39, the owner of a turban shop, said that when the British withdrew from Amarah in April, Iraqi security forces could not adequately protect the city. "The number of policemen is not enough and do not have enough effective weapons," he said.
"Their security measures are very weak here," said Abu Muhannad. "At checkpoints, they don't search cars."
Wednesday's attack shattered many residents' sense of security. "I don't think there will be any safe place in Iraq after what happened today," Abu Mohammad, the bakery worker, said.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Diwaniyah contributed to this report.