A car bomb blew up Wednesday in a packed outdoor food market in one of the most peaceful areas of Iraq's Shiite south, killing about 30 people and wounding dozens more.
The blast raised fears that militants may be planning more strikes in remote, poorly secured areas, seeking to stretch Iraq's security services as they take on a bigger role in Baghdad and other flashpoint cities.
Angry townspeople swarmed around police in the wake of the attack, cursing and blaming them for failing to prevent the bombing.
No group claimed responsibility for the explosion, which occurred during the morning shopping period in Bathaa, a small Euphrates River town near Nasiriyah about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
Al-Qaida, insurgents blamed
But the country's Shiite vice president, Adel Abdul-Mahdi, blamed al-Qaida and Sunni insurgents with links to Saddam Hussein's banned Baath party.
"Targeting stable and secure areas is a desperate effort ... to reignite sectarian sedition and try to affect security and political progress," Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement.
The blast was the latest in a series of high-profile explosions that have raised concerns about a resurgence of violence as the U.S. military faces a June 30 deadline to withdraw from urban areas in Iraq.
It was the deadliest bombing in the Nasiriyah area since Nov. 12, 2003, when a suicide truck bomber attacked the headquarters of Italian forces stationed there, killing more than 30 people.
Since then, however, surrounding Dhi Qar province has been relatively peaceful. Security responsibility for the area was transferred from the U.S.-led coalition to the Iraqis in September 2006 while Sunni-Shiite warfare was raging in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country.
Large-scale bombings targeting Shiite civilians have been a common tactic of al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists — especially in Baghdad. But they have been rare in remote southern communities like Bathaa, an overwhelmingly Shiite town where outsiders are viewed with suspicion.
Police chief fired
Stunned survivors expressed shock that their town was targeted. Some voiced anger at the police for lax security, prompting the provincial governor to fire the town police chief.
"We did not expect that such an explosion would happen here. It is a market for the poor people of Bathaa. It is a big failure of the security measures here," said Amir Talib, 28, who helped evacuate the wounded.
Haidar al-Ghizi, a town council member, said police were supposed to search cars in the area.
"I don't know how this car got through," he said. "There has been negligence and poor performance from police."
After the blast, dozens of young men gathered at the blast site, shouting and cursing the police for lax security, according to eyewitnesses. Iraqi army soldiers rushed to the scene to protect the police.
Authorities increased security at the main entry points to the province and in the Nasiriyah city center to prevent the possibility of another bombing.
Witnesses described a grisly scene of mangled bodies, including women and children, littering the main street in the first terrifying moments after the blast. So many victims were blown to pieces that authorities were having trouble determining the precise death toll.
Sajad Sharhan, the head of the provincial security committee, said 29 people were killed and 55 wounded. An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information, put the death toll at 28.
A spokesman for the Nasiriyah hospital, Kadhim al-Obeidi, said 35 people were killed and 45 wounded.
Persistent violence in areas of Iraq has raised new questions about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security.
President Barack Obama plans to end the U.S. combat role in Iraq by September 2010, with the last American forces to leave the country by 2012.
The withdrawal timetable is provided for in a U.S.-Iraqi security pact that took effect on Jan. 1.
The Iraqi government has agreed to hold a national referendum on the agreement as required by parliament but said it wanted to hold the vote early next year instead of this summer as originally planned.
Tuesday's Cabinet decision, which needs approval from Iraq's parliament, means the referendum would be held together with national parliamentary elections on Jan. 30.
Adding the referendum met a demand by the main Sunni bloc in parliament and raised the possibility that U.S. troops may have to leave even sooner if the voters reject the security agreement.
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