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 was not 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 only one person was killed and 77 were wounded, many of them critically.
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.
“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.
Early reports from police and Iraqi state television said 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 could not 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.
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.