NAJAF, Iraq — Three bombs exploded in quick succession after sunset Thursday in the southern holy city of Najaf, killing up to 25 people and wounding scores of others, Iraqi Interior Ministry officials said.
The blasts occurred in a crowded open-air fish and vegetable market near the landmark Imam Ali shrine, a popular pilgrimage destination for Shiite Muslims from around the world. The bombings shattered a yearlong lull in violence in Najaf that had allowed the religious tourism industry to flourish, with new hotels and restaurants packed most nights with pilgrims mostly from neighboring Iran.
No firm death toll could be confirmed as of late Thursday. Police and medical workers offered figures compiled by different agencies from the chaotic scene and blood-smeared hospital wards.
An Interior Ministry official in Baghdad, speaking only on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to make public statements, said the central government had received figures of 25 dead and 72 wounded. Radhwan al Kindi, the director of health services in Najaf, said that only one person was killed and 77 were wounded, many of them critically.
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Najaf authorities, perhaps fearful of political fallout from a security breach in such a sensitive place, also gave estimates of no more than 15 dead. Police officers stationed at hospitals tried to block reporters from interviewing survivors about the death toll.
"There were many people killed and many more injured, but no (official) is willing to make a statement and give the correct number," said Mohammed Hassan, a Najaf policeman who survived the bombings and saw the grisly aftermath firsthand.
Hassan said he was certain of a high death toll because he saw emergency workers at the scene piling severed limbs into a wheelbarrow, which he described as "a sight I will never forget in all my life."
"I was so terrified by the explosions and what I saw afterward that I could barely walk," Hassan said. "I saw burned shops and stuff scattered all over the streets. At first, I didn't realize it was parts of human bodies."
Early reports from police and Iraqi state television said that a homemade bomb had exploded near the Imam Ali shrine at 5:25 p.m., followed by a second explosion 10 minutes later. It was unclear what kind of bomb caused the second blast.
As emergency crews responded, police discovered a parked car rigged with a bomb but they couldn't defuse it before it, too, detonated. The area already had been cleared of civilians, a move that saved lives, said Najaf's police chief, Maj. Gen. Abdul Karim Mustafa.
"We had received intelligence that there was some activity to be undertaken by the Saddamist gangs in the form of explosive operations in order to destabilize the security situation in the city," Mustafa said. "We took the required precautions and enforced stringent restrictions on all the entrances to the city. The result was that we were able to reach the car bomb in time, but, unfortunately, we lost control during the defusing process. In spite of that, and in spite of the many injured, we believe that casualties were minimal, taking into consideration the crowded location."
Speaking from his bed in Najaf's Hakim Hospital, policeman Ahmed Mohamed Kadhim recounted how and he and other officers had become suspicious of a Daewoo Prince sedan with Baghdad plates and a taxi sign on top. Kadhim said his hand-held bomb-detecting device indicated the presence of explosives, so he backed away from the car and alerted other officers.
"When I was about 7 meters" — 23 feet — "from the car, the big explosion happened," said Kadhim, who received wounds to his legs and hands. "The blast looked like a volcano, a vertical explosion. It blew up, not out to the side. I don't remember anything else. I woke up and found myself in the hospital."
No group had claimed responsibility for the attack by Thursday night. Iraqi politicians blamed Sunni Muslim insurgents with ties to extremist groups and the former regime's Baath Party.
Najaf residents and authorities were dismayed that such a serious security lapse occurred in a mainly pedestrian area with several checkpoints.
"I saw paramedics carry away nine martyrs and dozens of injured people," said Mehdi Abbas, who owns a grocery store near the bombing site. "This is a fierce attack from the terrorists, and it seemed the security forces aren't securing the area properly."
(Zein is a McClatchy special correspondent. Allam reported from Baghdad.)
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