AMARA, Iraq (Reuters) - Three car bombs ripped through a busy street in the Shi’ite city of Amara on Wednesday, killing 40 people and wounding 125 in one of the deadliest attacks in southern Iraq this year, police said.
The coordinated attacks came just days before Britain is to complete the handover of security for the four southern provinces it has controlled since 2003.
Tensions have been running high between rival Shi’ite factions competing for influence in the oil-producing south although one analyst said al Qaeda was the likely culprit.
The street in Amara was a scene of chaos, with cars torn apart. A blocked gutter along one street was red with blood washed from pools on the pavement next to a child’s shoes.
“I arrived just after the explosions. It was gruesome and horrible — pieces of flesh sprayed everywhere,” said taxi driver Kazim Mutar, 42.
“They were women, children, market traders. The aim of this explosion was to kill (civilians).”
Amara, capital of Maysan province, has no foreign troops after Britain handed over responsibility for security in the province to Iraqi forces in April, part of a plan to pull British troops off the streets by the end of this year.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the last stage of that plan would go ahead in four days despite the blasts, with Iraqi forces taking control of neighboring Basra province, source of nearly all of Iraq’s oil export revenue.
“(The bombing) has nothing to do with Basra. The handover will go ahead on the 16th of this month. The quality of the forces in Basra is excellent,” he said at a conference in Basra. It was the first official announcement of the handover date.
One police official in Amara said 40 people had been killed in the blasts. A health official and the head of the provincial council security committee said 39 were killed and more than 125 wounded.
“Operating rooms are stretched to the limit because of the number of wounded. The city is in shock because it’s the first big explosion like this,” the police official said by telephone.
Most people were killed in the second and third blasts, police said. Onlookers had gathered after the first blast in a parking lot.
Outside the south, a car bomb in Baghdad killed five people and wounded 13, police said.
Southern Iraq has largely escaped the sectarian carnage that has plagued other parts of the country. Car bombings, often blamed on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants, usually happen in and around Baghdad or in provinces north of the capital.
Oslo-based historian Reidar Visser, an expert on southern Iraq who edits the Web site historiae.org, pointed the finger at al Qaeda.
“I would say that, on the surface, the Amara bombings seem to have the hallmarks of an isolated al-Qaeda operation rather than being part of an internal Shi’ite-on-Shi’ite fight for control,” Visser told Reuters.
The south has been the scene of a turf war between Shi’ite groups, including supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and their chief rivals, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Two southern provincial governors and several senior police commanders have been assassinated in recent months. Maysan is home to Iraq’s isolated Marsh Arabs.
Officials said a curfew had been imposed in Amara, a city of several hundred thousand people about 365 km (230 miles) southeast of Baghdad. They said an undisclosed number of suspects had been detained after the blasts.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called the bombings a “desperate attempt” to draw attention away from recent security gains across Iraq. State television said the provincial police chief had been sacked.
Three days ago British Prime Minister Gordon Brown paid a brief visit to British forces at their last base in Iraq near Basra and said they had succeeded in improving security in the south. Britain has 4,500 troops left in Iraq, which Brown has ordered cut to just 2,500 by mid-2008.
Additional reporting by Mussab al-Khairalla in Basra, and Peter Graff, Aseel Kami, Dean Yates and Aws Qusay in Baghdad; Writing by Peter Graff and Dean Yates; Editing by Robert Woodward