Series Of Blasts Kills Scores In Iraq

An injured Iraqi girl is treated by medics from 1st Battalion, 30th Infantry Regiment at Patrol Base Murray after a mortar strike injured two girls in the town of Arab Jabour south of Baghdad, Iraq on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007.
AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
Three car bombs exploded in quick succession Wednesday at the main market of a southern Shiite city, killing at least 41 people and wounding 150 others, police and local government officials said. It was the deadliest attack against Iraqi civilians in four months.

The devastating blasts in Amarah, an oil-producing city largely spared from sectarian bloodshed, occurred only days before Britain was expected to hand over a neighboring southern province - the last remaining under British control since the 2003 invasion.

Fears are rising about whether Iraq's mostly Shiite security forces can control Shiite militias that are competing for power in the oil-rich south, even as U.S. officials report dramatic falls in violence nationwide.

American commanders fear that al Qaeda and other extremists might try to exploit the security gap by attempting 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 bombings, which occurred minutes apart at the entrance to the main market in the city, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.

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 first blast.

Bystanders rushed to help victims of the first blast, only to suffer death or injury in the explosions that followed, police and witnesses said.

Car bombs are the a 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 in the south.

British forces handed control of Maysan to the Iraqis last April.

In a few days, Britain is expected to turn over the last southern province - oil-rich Basra, long rocked by militia turf battles. Maintaining security in Basra, the focal point of Iraq's vast oil wealth, represents a major test for Iraqi security forces, which have been infiltrated by Shiite militias.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who was visiting nearby Basra to discuss reconstruction issues, called the Amarah attack a "desperate attempt" to draw attention away from "the clear successes" in the battle to restore stability.

Al-Maliki, a Shiite, urged the people of Amarah to exercise restraint and avoid revenge attacks against the "terrorists who do not want Iraq to stand up again."

The police chief in Amarah was fired after the deadly explosions, and Iraqi soldiers deployed on the streets. Hospital were overwhelmed with the casualties, which mounted as bodies were pulled from the rubble, according to a provincial spokesman.

The blasts began with a small explosion at the entrance to the market, said Mohammed Saleh, a provincial council spokesman. Saleh said bystanders rushed to the scene to care for the handful of wounded when a second car bomb exploded. The third car blew up nearby as the crowd began to flee, he said.

Public markets in Baghdad and other flashpoint cities are surrounded by blast walls and shoppers are searched upon entering. No cars are allowed to park nearby.

Before the Wednesday blasts, however, Amarah and the surrounding province accounted for less than one percent of the civilian casualties reported this year, according to a count by The Associated Press. Saleh said no security measures were in place Wednesday.

"There was not a single police car in the street at the time of the explosion," he said. "The provincial council complained many times to the police chief about the lack of security measures in the city, but he would not listen."

In other recent developments:
  • A car bomber killed two guards at a checkpoint Tuesday near the Baghdad home and offices of two prominent politicians, including the first prime minister after Saddam Hussein. Both men were out of the country at the time. The explosion took place near the U.S.-protected Green Zone, less than a quarter-mile from the home and office compound of Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. It was the second bombing in two days to strike guards of Allawi, who is on a short list of possible future national leaders and a fierce critic of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
  • An anti-al Qaeda Sunni tribal sheik who was promoting national unity was killed Tuesday along with his nephew in a drive-by shooting near Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad. The attack was the latest in a series of strikes against Sunnis who have joined forces with the American and Iraqi governments against the terror network.
  • In the southern city of Basra, the bullet-riddled bodies of a Christian woman and her brother were found in a garbage dump Monday, officials said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity. Basra's police chief, Maj. Gen. Jalil Khalaf, has said patrols of motorbikes or unlicensed cars with tinted windows are accosting women not wearing the traditional dress and head scarves, known as the hijab, and the mutilated bodies of 40 women have been found this year.
  • The Iraqi government has ordered all policewomen to hand in their guns for redistribution to men, the Los Angeles Times reports. The move thwarts a U.S. initiative to bring women into the nation's police force. The Interior Ministry, which oversees the police, issued the order late last month, according to ministry documents, U.S. officials and several of the women. Critics say the move is the latest sign of the religious and cultural conservatism that has taken hold in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein ushered in a government dominated by Shiite Muslims.