A car bomb ripped through a market in southern Iraq's Shiite heartland today as shoppers were buying meat and vegetables, killing about 30 people and wounding dozens more, officials said.
While the predominantly Shiite south has been plagued by fighting between rival militias, massive blasts such this are quite rare. The last such bombing was in November 2003 when a suicide truck bomber attacked the headquarters of Italian forces stationed there, killing more than 30 people.
The blast, which is the signature attack of al Qaida in Iraq, is the latest in a series of high-profile explosions that have raised concerns about a resurgence of violence as the US military faces a June 30 deadline to withdraw from urban areas in Iraq.
The explosives-laden car detonated at 9am in the centre of the commercial area, according to police, in the town of Bathaa, near the provincial capital of Nasiriyah, about 200 miles south-east of Baghdad.
Witnesses blamed lax security measures.
"We never expected such an explosion to occur here," said Amir Talib, 28, who witnessed the bombing and helped evacuate casualties in the aftermath. "It is a big security failure."
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."
Authorities increased security at the main entry points to the province and in the Nasiriyah city centre to prevent the possibility of another bombing.
The provincial governor also fired the town's police chief.
The US military said Iraqi forces had secured the bombing site.
No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, but the US military has warned that Sunni insurgents could be expected to try to foment sectarian violence in a bid to upset security gains ahead of the US withdrawal.
Persistent violence as the Americans begin to withdraw has raised new questions about the readiness of Iraqi forces to take over their own security.
Iraq's Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi, a Shiite, blamed al Qaida and nationalist insurgents.
"Targeting stable and secure areas is a desperate effort ... to re-ignite sectarian sedition and try to affect security and political progress," Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement.
Officials gave conflicting death tolls Wednesday, blaming the confusion on the mangled state of many of the bodies.
Council member al-Ghizi said 30 people were killed, including women and children, and 70 others were wounded.
Sajad Sharhan, the head of the security committee for the surrounding Dhi Qar province, said 29 people were killed and 55 wounded, including five in critical condition.
A spokesman for the Nasiriyah hospital, Kadhim al-Obeidi, said 35 people were killed and 45 wounded.
Conflicting tolls in the confusing wake of such traumatic attacks are common in Iraq.