A booby-trapped motorcycle loaded with nails and ball-bearings exploded in a crowded bazaar Friday in Baghdad, killing at least 19 people and wounding 50, Iraqi officials said. The attack occurred just four days before the deadline for U.S. combat troops to withdraw from cities.
The wave of violence that has killed more than 200 people this week has raised fresh doubts about the ability of Iraqi forces to provide security as their American partners become less visible.
Another explosion in the northern city of Mosul killed an Iraqi soldier and wounded two others, police said.
The Baghdad explosion occurred just after 9 a.m. when the market was packed with young people buying or selling motorcycles in central Baghdad, according to police and hospital officials.
Ghaith Abdul-Allah, 35, was unloading motorcycles he planned to sell from his truck when the blast occurred.
"I saw a ball of fire and some motorbikes were lifted about 10 meters (yards) into the air," he said. "When the smoke from the explosion vanished, I saw a large number of young men lying on the ground soaked in blood."
"There were others who were screaming and crying for a lost brother or a friend. I do not know why these explosions are taking place and the Iraqi security forces are doing nothing to stop them," he added.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but insurgents frequently target crowded market districts to try to maximize casualties. The motorcycle bazaar is only open on Fridays.
The market has been hit by several bombings in the past, but Iraqis had resumed flocking to the area due to a sharp drop in violence.
An aide to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, Sheik Asaad al-Nassiri, denounced the bombings — many of which targeted Shiite areas — and called on worshippers to protest the violence after Friday prayers in Kufa, south of Baghdad.
He also read a statement from al-Sadr that blamed the Americans for the bombings and called on his followers to demand "security, services, independence and sovereignty by peaceful and civilized means."
In Sadr City, protesters burned an American flag as an official from al-Sadr's office told the crowd that the United States was trying to use the bombing as an excuse not to withdraw.
"The latest criminal acts inside Iraqi cities are clear proof that there will be no withdrawal and that the occupier is trying to find pretexts to stay in our holy land," Salman al-Fraiji said.
Attacks in Iraq have continued on a daily basis despite the security gains of the past two years, but the recent bombings have been larger in terms of numbers killed.
A medical assistant at one of the hospitals where the victims were taken, who identified himself as Abu Mohammed, said many of the wounded people had been struck by nails and ball-bearings and suffered severe burns.
Police and hospital officials, who gave the death toll on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information, said more than 50 people also were wounded.
The escalation in violence is overshadowing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's declaration of a "great victory" in the U.S. pullout from urban areas by Tuesday's deadline. He has declared June 30 a national holiday to be marked with celebrations.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned they expect more violence in the days surrounding the deadline but insist the withdrawal will go ahead as scheduled.
Under a security pact, the Americans must pull back from cities by June 30 and from the entire country by the end of 2011.