A southern Shiite city hit by three synchronized car bombs buried its dead Thursday, while provincial officials lowered the death toll from 41 to at least 25, with scores wounded in one of the worst attacks against Iraqi civilians in recent months.
Amarah, an oil-rich city about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad, has largely escaped the sectarian bloodshed that has plagued Iraq, but some officials fear attacks like Wednesday's could ignite fighting between powerful Shiite factions.
Hospitals in Amarah were crowded with the more than 100 people wounded in the attacks. Relatives filled the hallways and tended to victims, young and old, who were missing arms, legs and suffering from major head wounds.
Provincial authorities, meanwhile, lowered their death toll on Thursday from a high of 41 to at least 25, blaming confusion in the immediate aftermath for the conflicting numbers and cautioning that many of the injuries were serious.
A local police officer at the city's operations room, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said 25 were killed and 135 wounded. He said a driving ban imposed Wednesday was only being enforced in the city center near the site of the blast.
Saadoun Sami Hassan, spokesman for the provincial health directorate, said 28 were killed, including one man who died Thursday afternoon, and 150 wounded.
"We expect death toll to rise as most of the wounded suffer serious injures in the heads by the flying shrapnel," Hassan told the Associated Press in a phone interview from Baghdad.
On Thursday, police in the market area where the bombs exploded called out over loudspeakers to ask citizens to watch for anything unusual. Residents cleaned up debris, walking in front of shattered windows and walls pockmarked by flying shrapnel, but government offices and shops were open.
The attack came just days before the British are expected to hand over to local officials control of neighboring Basra province - the last under its domain since the 2003 invasion.
Fears are rising about whether Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces can control Shiite militias competing for power in the oil-rich south, even as U.S. officials report dramatic falls in violence nationwide.
American commanders worry that al Qaeda in Iraq and other extremists might attempt spectacular attacks against Shiite civilians in less-protected areas outside Baghdad - especially where there is little coalition military presence.
No group claimed responsibility for the Amarah explosions, which appeared to be bomb-rigged cars rather than suicide attacks. The blasts occurred minutes apart and seemed to be timed to bring maximum carnage.
CBS News correspondent Jeff Glor reports the blasts follow a recent pattern, in which militants hide multiple devices near one another, to kill people who respond to the initial explosion.
Bystanders rushed to help victims of the first blast, only to be caught in the explosions that followed, police and witnesses said.
Car bombs are the signature weapon of al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists, which are seeking new sanctuaries after being driven out of the Baghdad area. But such groups have had virtually no presence in Amarah and the surrounding Maysan province, where there are few Sunni communities to offer them shelter.
Instead, rival Shiite militias - some believe backed by Iran - pose the biggest security threat in the south. That threat has drawn new attention since Britain announced plans to draw down on its military presence.
British forces handed control of Maysan province to the Iraqis last April. In a few days, Britain is expected to turn over oil-rich Basra, long besieged by militia turf battles.
Before the Wednesday blasts, Amarah and the surrounding province accounted for less than 1 percent of the civilian casualties reported this year, according to a count by The Associated Press.
Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman, said the police chief was fired. A provincial official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter, said the police chief ignored warnings Dec. 4 about possible terrorist attacks in Amarah.
In other developments: