AMARAH, Iraq — Three coordinated car bombs ripped through the main street of this southern city Wednesday, killing as many as 42 people and wounding at least 125 in the largest bombing in Iraq since August.
The police chief of the predominantly Shiite Muslim city, which had never been struck by a car bomb before, was immediately fired for negligence amid accusations that the police had been infiltrated, though by whom was unclear. A curfew was imposed.
"Amarah has never seen such an explosion before," said Abdel Karim Khalaf, the chief spokesman for Iraq's Interior Ministry, who was dispatched to Amarah from Baghdad, 200 miles to the northwest. "A triple explosion surely indicates that the security forces have been infiltrated. This situation is very dangerous and has to be remedied."
Southern Iraq, with its overwhelmingly Shiite population, largely has been free of the kind of sectarian violence that's racked Baghdad and other mixed areas as Sunni Muslims and Shiites have fought for turf and power.
But the region has seen increased fighting — including assassinations of political figures and police officials — as two Shiite factions, the Mahdi Army of cleric Muqtada al Sadr and the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, battle for control.
The two organizations faced off in Amarah in October 2006, when 800 members of the Mahdi Army seized the town, which the Badr Organization then controlled. That siege lasted a day, until Iraqi forces entered the city. Amarah had been peaceful since then.
Who might be behind Wednesday's car bombs, which devastated restaurants and shops in the city's center, was uncertain, however. Car bombs in other parts of Iraq, including Baghdad, usually are blamed on the Sunni extremist group al Qaida in Iraq, which has only a small presence in the south. The largest such attack — the coordinated bombing of two ethnic Yazidi villages in northern Iraq, which killed hundreds in August — was blamed on al Qaida in Iraq.
Witnesses to Wednesday's explosions said the first came at about 10:30 a.m.
Ali Hussein Khalaf, 23, said he'd just finished his breakfast at Jamal Restaurant when a car in the parking lot across the street detonated, throwing him back and sending shards of glass over his body.
Kareem al Hmaidawi, 48, felt the explosion in his home and ran to the door, readying himself to go help. His wife stopped him and they argued. She begged him to stay, and a second explosion shook their home.
"I could hear the weeping and the noise," Hmaidawi said. Finally, his wife let him go, and as he walked out he heard a third blast.
Hmaidawi said tens of bodies lay on the road as he ran to help. The fronts of shops lay in ruins. He'd never before seen body parts scattered by a car bomb, he said.
At the al Sadr General Hospital, dozens of women filled the hallways, crying for their loved ones as doctors and hospital workers tried to shoo them out. The injured filled the beds, and people flowed in to give blood.
Sunni Vice President Tariq al Hashemi and Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki condemned the attacks. Maliki called them a "desperate attempt to attract attention away from the clear successes" the government has had in cutting violence elsewhere.
In Baghdad, another car bomb killed at least five people and injured 13.
(Basri is a McClatchy special correspondent. Fadel reported from Baghdad. Special correspondents Laith Hammoudi and Hussein Kadhim contributed to this report from Baghdad.)