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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Suspected al Qaeda militants killed nearly 200 people in a wave of car bombings in Baghdad on Wednesday, including one that was the single deadliest attack in the Iraqi capital since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
The bombings were by far the bloodiest in Baghdad since U.S. and Iraqi forces launched a security crackdown two months ago in an attempt to halt the country's slide into sectarian civil war.
One car bomb near a market in the mainly Shi'ite Muslim Sadriya district killed 140 people and wounded 150, police said.
"The street was transformed into a swimming pool of blood," said Ahmed Hameed, a shopkeeper in Sadriya. The bombing was the worst insurgent attack in Baghdad since U.S. forces swept into the city and toppled Saddam Hussein four years ago.
Wednesday's attacks killed a total of 191 people and wounded 250, police said. Witnesses said many of the dead were women and children.
"Some people were burned alive inside mini-buses," said one witness, who declined to be named. "Women were screaming and shouting for their loved ones who died."
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, from Iraq's majority Shi'ite community, condemned the attackers as "vampires" and "soldiers of Satan". He ordered the arrest of the Iraqi army commander in charge of security in Sadriya for failing to secure the area.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking in Tel Aviv, called the bombings "horrifying". U.S. military officials said early indications showed Sunni Islamist al Qaeda was to blame.
The apparently coordinated attacks -- there were several within a short space of time -- occurred hours after Maliki said Iraqis would take security control of the whole country from foreign forces by the end of the year.
Maliki is under pressure to say when foreign forces will leave Iraq, but the attacks in mainly Shi'ite areas of Baghdad underscored the challenges for Iraqi forces in taking charge of overall security from more than 150,000 U.S. and British troops.
U.S. and Iraqi commanders began deploying thousands more troops on Baghdad's streets in February.
Sectarian death squad killings have declined, but car bombs are much harder to stop, U.S. military officials say.
The bombings could inflame sectarian passions in Baghdad, especially among the Mehdi Army militia of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. It has kept a low profile so far during the Baghdad security crackdown.
Al Qaeda is blamed for most of the major bombings targeting Shi'ites in Iraq and there are fears the Mehdi Army may take to the streets to retaliate.
The attacks occurred hours after Maliki again appealed for reconciliation between Shi'ites and the once-dominant Sunni Arabs from whom insurgents draw their support.
"There is no magic solution to put out the fire of sectarian sedition that some are trying to set up, especially al Qaeda," Maliki said in a speech.
The worst death toll from combined bomb attacks in Baghdad since the 2003 invasion was in November when six car bombs killed 202 people.
In Sadriya, a thick, dark plume of smoke rose at the scene of the bombing. Firefighters rushed to put out flames on burning bodies, while rescue workers tried to retrieve bodies from the blackened hulks of cars.
Wednesday's attacks followed a suicide bombing in parliament last week that killed one legislator. A truck bomb blast on the same day destroyed one of Baghdad's most famous bridges.
Maliki's speech was read on his behalf by National Security Adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie at a ceremony marking the handover of the southern Maysan province from British to Iraqi control.
The prime minister said three provinces in the autonomous Kurdistan region would be next, followed by Kerbala and Wasit provinces. "Then it would be province by province until a full transfer has been completed by the end of the year," he said.
Maysan is the fourth of Iraq's 18 provinces to be handed to Iraqi security forces, joining Muthanna, Najaf and Dhi Qar, all predominantly Shi'ite and relatively calm regions in the south.
Maliki says Iraqi security forces will take back control from foreign forces only when they are ready.
With additional reporting by Ross Colvin in Amara, Aseel Kami, Yara Bayoumy, Paul Tait and Waleed Ibrahim in Baghdad