BAGHDAD: A car bomb ripped through a market district Wednesday in a mainly Shiite area in southern Iraq, killing as many as 35 people and wounding dozens, officials said.
The blast is the latest in a series of high-profile explosions that have raised concerns about a resurgence of violence as the U.S. 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 about 9 a.m., according to police.
Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but car bombings are a signature of al-Qaida in Iraq. The U.S. military has warned the Sunni terror network could be expected to try to foment sectarian violence in a bid to upset security gains ahead of the U.S. 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.
Officials gave conflicting death tolls Wednesday, as is common in the chaotic aftermath of bombings in Iraq. They also faced the difficulty of gathering information from a small town.
A spokesman for the Nasiriyah hospital, Kadhim al-Obeidi, said 35 people were killed and 45 wounded.
An Interior Ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he's not authorized to release the information, put the death toll at 28.
The town is near Nasiriyah, about 200 miles (320 kilometers) southeast of Baghdad.
The area has been the site of past violence — mainly fierce internal fighting between Shiite militia factions before a cease-fire took hold.
Also, a Nov. 12, 2003, bombing struck the military barracks of the Italian forces who were stationed in the area at the time, killing at least 19 Italians.
Dhi Qar province, of which Nasiriyah is the administrative capital, was the second province to be transferred from U.S.-led coalition control to the Iraqis in September 2006.
A U.S.-Iraqi security pact that took effect on Jan. 1 requires all American forces to pull back from urban areas by the end of this month and from the entire country by 2012.
The Iraqi government has agreed to hold a national referendum on the agreement as required by parliament but said it wanted to hold the vote early next year instead of this summer as originally planned.
Tuesday's Cabinet decision, which needs approval from Iraq's parliament, means the referendum would be held together with national parliamentary elections on Jan. 30.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the move would "save time and money."
The inclusion of the referendum met a demand by the main Sunni bloc in parliament and raised the possibility that the deal could be rejected if anti-U.S. anger and demands for an immediate withdrawal grew.