AMARA, Iraq (Reuters) - Three car bombs ripped through a busy street in the Shi'ite city of Amara on Wednesday, killing 40 people and wounding 125 in one of the deadliest attacks in southern Iraq this year, police said.
The attacks came just days before Britain is to complete the handover of security for the four southern Iraqi provinces it has controlled since 2003, and tensions have been high among rival Shi'ite factions competing for influence.
The street was a scene of chaos, with cars torn apart. A blocked gutter along one street was red with stagnant blood washed from pools on the pavement next to a child's shoes.
"I arrived just after the explosions. It was gruesome and horrible -- pieces of flesh sprayed everywhere," said taxi driver Kazim Mutar, 42.
"They were women, children, market traders. The aim of this explosion was to kill (civilians). There were no security forces or a military patrol or even a governmental institution here."
Amara, capital of Maysan province, already has no foreign troops after Britain handed over responsibility for security in the province to Iraqi forces in April, part of a plan to pull British troops off the streets by the end of this year.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the last stage of that plan would go ahead in four days despite the blasts, with Iraqi forces taking control of neighbouring Basra province, source of nearly all of Iraq's oil export revenue.
"(The bombing) has nothing to do with Basra. The handover will go ahead on the 16th of this month. The quality of the forces in Basra is excellent," he said at a conference in Basra. It was the first official announcement of the handover date.
One police official in Amara said 40 people had been killed in the blasts, which happened on a busy main street. A health official and the head of the provincial council security committee said 39 were killed and more than 125 wounded.
"Operating rooms are stretched to the limit because of the number of wounded. The city is in shock because it's the first big explosion like this," the police official said by telephone.
Most people were killed in the second and third blasts, police said. Onlookers had gathered after the first blast in a parking lot and were killed or wounded by subsequent bombs.
The British military, relying on Iraqi sources, said 20 people had been killed and put the number of car bombs at two.
British spokesman Major Mike Shearer said Iraqi authorities had not asked for help and Britain had faith they could cope.
RARE IN SOUTH
Outside the south, a separate car bomb in Baghdad killed five people and wounded 13, police said.
Southern Iraq has largely escaped the sectarian carnage that has plagued other parts of the country. Car bombings, often blamed on Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants, usually happen in and around Baghdad or in provinces north of the capital.
But the south has witnessed a turf war between Shi'ite groups, including supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and their chief rivals the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Recent months have seen the assassination of two southern provincial governors and several senior police commanders.
Officials said a curfew had been imposed in Amara, a city of several hundred thousand people about 365 km on the Tigris River southeast of Baghdad. They said an undisclosed number of suspects had been detained after the blasts.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki condemned the bombings in a statement, calling them a "desperate attempt" to draw attention away from recent security gains across Iraq. State television said the provincial police chief had been sacked.
The bombings came three days after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown paid a brief visit to British forces at their last base in Iraq near Basra, saying they had succeeded in improving security in the south. Britain has 4,500 troops left in Iraq, which Brown has ordered cut to just 2,500 by mid-2008.
Maysan is home to Iraq's isolated Marsh Arabs and has large oil fields. A year ago, clashes broke out between militiamen and police, prompting the dispatch of hundreds of Iraqi troops.
Experts fear Shi'ite factions will intensify their battle for political supremacy in the south with British troops gone. However, there has been a lull in recent weeks in violence in Basra city and officials say factions have agreed a truce.
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