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Car bomb hits Shiite heartland, killing 29

A RARE car bomb ripped through a market in southern Iraq's Shiite heartland yesterday as shoppers were buying meat and vegetables, killing at least 29 people and wounding dozens, officials said.

It is the deadliest bombing to hit the Nasiriyah area since November 12, 2003, when a suicide truck bomber attacked the headquarters of Italian forces stationed there, killing more than 30 people.

The blast 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 was parked in the center of the commercial area in the town of Bathaa when it blew up at 9am, according to police.

The area had been the site of past violence - mainly fierce internal fighting between Shiite militia factions before a cease-fire took hold. But such bombings, which are the signature attacks of al-Qaida in Iraq, have been rare.

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."

Authorities said they had increased security at the main entry points to the province and in the Nasiriyah city center to prevent the possibility of another bombing. The US military said Iraqi forces had secured the bombing site.

"All injured people have been sent to area hospitals. Police are collecting forensic evidence at the site," said Major Myles B. Caggins III, a spokesman for American forces in the area.

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 reignite sectarian sedition and try to affect security and political progress," Abdul-Mahdi said in a statement.

Sajad Sharhan, the head of the security committee for the surrounding Dhi Qar province, said 29 people were killed and 55 wounded.

He also said a wounded man was under investigation because local residents claimed he was a stranger in the area. Sharhan stressed nobody had been charged.


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