A pair of suicide bombers detonated explosives among shoppers in a crowded outdoor market in a Shiite city south of Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 73 people and wounding 163, police said.
Bombs and a mortar attack killed at least 17 others in Shiite and Sunni areas of Baghdad.
Overall, more than 100 people were killed or found dead across the country, reflecting the ongoing wave of sectarian and insurgency bloodletting as the US military gears up for a major security operation to stem the violence.
The biggest attack yesterday took place in the centre of Hillah, a city about 60 miles south of Baghdad. Police and witnesses said the two bombers strolled into the Maktabat market about 6pm local time when the area was packed with shoppers buying food.
One of the bombers detonated his explosives when he was approached by police and the other blew himself up moments later, according to police spokesman Capt. Muthanna Khaled, who gave the casualty figures.
He said today that the toll had risen after several of the wounded died and more bodies were found in recovery efforts.
The blasts sent bodies hurling through the air and set fire to wooden stalls where vendors sold fruits and vegetables, witnesses said. Shoppers fled screaming in panic, while others stopped to help rescuers carry away the wounded.
Dr Mohammed Diya of Hillah General Hospital said some of the wounded were in critical condition, raising concern the death toll could rise.
Pools of blood were scattered along the market streets, along with bits of fruits and vegetables. Paramedics wearing white gloves roamed through the area removing body parts.
No group claimed responsibility for the attack, the latest in a long series that have occurred in Hillah since the insurgency erupted in late 2003. The Shiite city, located in a religiously mixed province, was the scene of one of Iraq’s deadliest attacks – a February 2005 suicide car bombing that killed 125 people.
In Baghdad, sectarian violence flared in both Shiite and Sunni areas of the capital, where US and Iraqi forces are preparing for the third major security crackdown in a year.
Six people died and 12 were wounded when a car bomb exploded on Rashid Street in the mostly Shiite heart of the city. A bomb on a public bus killed another six people and wounded eight in the Shiite commercial district of Karradah.
Several mortar rounds slammed into the Sunni district of Azamiyah for a third straight day, killing five people and wounding 12, according to hospital and police officials.
Police found the bullet-riddled bodies of 33 men scattered across the Iraqi capital, the Interior Ministry said. Most showed signs of torture and were believed to be the victims of Shiite and Sunni death squads.
Elsewhere, a US soldier died yesterday from wounds suffered two days ago in Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of Baghdad, the military said.
Three civilians were killed in separate shootings in the northern city of Mosul, and a policeman died in a car bombing in the city of Qaim on the Syrian border, police said.
In Baqouba, five gunmen broke into the athletic department of a local university, seized the son of the department’s director, took him into his father’s office and shot both of them dead, police said. The city, about 35 miles north-east of Baghdad, has been riveted by sectarian violence for months.
US officials have accused Iran of fomenting sectarian strife by arming and training Shiite militias. President Bush has authorised US forces to kill or capture any Iranian agents found.
Defence officials are also looking into the possibility that Iranian agents may have been behind the January 20 attack in Karbala in which five Americans were killed – four of them after being taken prisoner.