BAGHDAD - Three powerful car bombs exploded one after the other in a southern provincial capital yesterday, killing at least 46 and injuring 149 in the most devastating attack in the nation since August, police said.
The attack in Amarah, in Maysan province, was believed to be the first mass bombing there since the US-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 forces prepare to hand over neighboring Basra province this weekend to Iraqi security forces, the bombings also underscored the fragility of southern Iraq, where rival Shi'ite groups are battling for influence and resources.
Police expect the death toll to rise. Immediate casualty numbers varied. Officials in Amarah said that at least 46 were killed, while Brigadier General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, the spokesman for Iraq's 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 visited Basra on Tuesday, said the attack was a "desperate attempt" 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, Reuters news service 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."
The blasts tore through Dijlah Street, a commercial thoroughfare, around 11 a.m., ripping apart 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.
Police sealed off a section of Dijlah Street, home to Amarah's best-known restaurants and clothing stores, as ambulances took victims to three hospitals, said Lieutenant Colonel Khalid Muhammad. No groups claimed responsibility, said police. But residents immediately blamed Shi'ite factions, who 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.
Abdul Jabar, 39, an owner of a turban shop, said that when the British withdrew from Amarah in April, Iraqi security forces could not fill the void and adequately protect the city.
Yesterday's attack shattered many residents' sense of security. "We hope that these explosions will be the first and the last," Jabar said.
A spokesman for the US Embassy 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," Philip Reeker, the spokesman, told reporters.