Forty people were killed and more than 125 wounded when three car bombs exploded in quick succession in the Shi'ite city of Amara in southern Iraq on Wednesday, police said.
The bombings were among the deadliest in Iraq in months and came as tensions are running high across oil-producing southern Iraq, where rival Shi'ite factions are struggling for influence as Britain reduces its forces in the region.
One police official in Amara said 40 people had been killed in the blasts, which all happened along the same street in the capital of Maysan province. A health official 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. Many onlookers had gathered after the first blast in a parking lot and were killed or wounded when the subsequent car bombs exploded.
Officials said an unknown number of suspects had been detained.
The government in Baghdad issued a statement condemning the bombings and calling them a desperate attempt to draw attention away from recent security gains across Iraq.
Largely Shi'ite southern Iraq including Maysan has escaped much of the sectarian violence that has plagued Baghdad and other parts of Iraq, and car bomb attacks are rare.
But southern Iraq is witnessing a turf war between rival Shi'ite groups, including supporters of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia, and its chief rival the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
The bombings came three days after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown paid a brief visit to British forces in neighboring Basra province.
Britain is expected to hand control of security next week to Iraqi forces in Basra. That will end Britain's security responsibility of the four southern provinces it once controlled, including Maysan, which was handed back in April.
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One witness in Amara, 230 miles southeast of Baghdad, said the bomb in the parking lot exploded first, followed soon after by the one at the market.
Latif al-Tamimi, the head of the provincial council's security committee, said some suspects had been detained, although he did not give details.
Our forces are sufficient and capable of keeping the situation in the city under control. There has been some confusion because it is the first time explosions like this have occurred in Amara, but it's stable now, he said.
Maysan is home to the Marsh Arabs and has large oil fields. A year ago, clashes broke out between militiamen and police in Amara, prompting the dispatch of hundreds of Iraqi troops.
Adding to the tensions in southern Iraq in recent months has been the assassination of two provincial governors. Senior police officials have also been killed.
Analysts fear Shi'ite factions will intensify their battle for political supremacy as Britain further cuts troop levels.
However, there has not yet been an upsurge of intra-Shi'ite violence in Basra city, which is the most important hub in southern Iraq and where most of Iraq's oil exports pass through.
(Additional reporting by Peter Graff, Aseel Kami and Aws Qusay in Baghdad)
(Writing by Dean Yates, Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia)