Three bombs kill at least 42 in southern Iraq
The blasts may spark more sectarian violence.
Published December 13, 2007
The deadliest attack against Iraqi civilians in four months came Wednesday when three car bombs exploded in quick succession at the main market of a southern Shiite city, killing at least 42and wounding 125 others, authorities said.
The devastating blasts in Amarah, an oil-producing city 200 miles south of Baghdad largely spared from sectarian bloodshed, occurred only days before Britain is expected to hand over a neighboring southern province - the last under British control since the 2003 invasion.
Fears are rising about whether Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces can control Shiite militias competing for power in the oil-rich south, even as U.S. officials report dramatic decreases in violence nationwide.
American commanders fear that al-Qaida in Iraq and other extremists might try to exploit the security gap by attempting spectacular attacks against Shiite civilians in less-protected areas outside Baghdad - especially where there is little coalition military presence.
No group claimed responsibility for the Amarah bombings, which appeared to be bomb-rigged cars rather than suicide attacks. The blasts occurred minutes apart and seemed to be timed to bring maximum carnage.
Bystanders rushed to help victims of the first blast, only to suffer the effects of the explosions that followed.
Car bombs are the signature weapon of al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists, which are seeking new sanctuaries after being driven out of the Baghdad area.
But such groups have had virtually no presence in Amarah and the surrounding Maysan province, where there are few Sunni communities to offer them shelter.
Instead, rival Shiite militias - some thought backed by Iran - pose the biggest security threat in the south. That threat has drawn new attention since Britain announced plans to draw down its military presence.
British forces handed control of Maysan province to the Iraqis last April.
In a few days, Britain is expected to turn over the last southern province:Basra, long rocked by militia turf battles. Maintaining security in Basra, the focal point of Iraq's vast oil wealth, represents a major test for Iraqi security forces, which have been infiltrated by Shiite militias.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was visiting nearby Basra to discuss reconstruction issues, called the Amarah attack a "desperate attempt" to draw attention away from "the clear successes" in the battle to restore stability.
Maliki, a Shiite, urged the people of Amarah to exercise restraint and avoid revenge attacks against the "terrorists who do not want Iraq to stand up again."
Hospital were overwhelmed with the casualties, which mounted as bodies were pulled from the rubble, according to a provincial spokesman.
Public markets in Baghdad and other flash point cities are surrounded by blast walls, and shoppers are searched upon entering. No cars are allowed to park nearby.
But Mohammed Saleh, a provincial council spokesman, said no security measures were in place 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 police chief in Amarah was fired after the explosions.
Before the Wednesday blasts, Amarah and the surrounding province accounted for less than 1 percent of the civilian casualties reported this year, according to a count by the Associated Press.
Salam Hussein Jabr, who runs a travel agency in Amarah, said the blasts could be felt a half-mile away.
U.S. officials have warned recently that al-Qaida might attempt a major attack against Shiite civilians to try to provoke new sectarian bloodshed. In August, four suicide bombers hit a Kurdish-speaking Yazidi community in northwest Iraq, killing some 500 people in the deadliest attack of the war.
Philip Reeker, the U.S. Embassy spokesman, said recent attacks in Amarah and elsewhere highlighted the dangers still facing Iraq, despite the decline in violence around the capital.
"We are by no means declaring a victory against those who would like to disrupt the progress in Iraq," Reeker said.
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[Last modified December 13, 2007, 00:50:29]
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