BAGHDAD - Suicide bombers killed more than 100 people in a crowded market in a Shi'ite district of Baghdad and a mainly Shi'ite town today in an upsurge in the sectarian violence that threatens all-out civil war.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, called for restraint and urged Iraqis to work with security forces to prevent the violence from spiralling out of control. Bombs earlier this week in northern Iraq sparked mass reprisal killings.
One suicide bomber, possibly two, killed 62 people in a market in the Shaab district of northern Baghdad, police sources said, in what appeared to be the latest of a string of attacks on Shi'ite districts and towns blamed on al Qaeda.
"It is impossible to tell the exact number of dead because we are basically counting body parts," said a Health Ministry official in Baghdad, who asked not to be named.
Most of the victims were women and children, who had been out shopping in the crowded market before the start of the nightly curfew, he said.
At about the same time, three suicide car bombs exploded within minutes of each other in Khalis, 80 kilometres north of Baghdad, killing 53 people and wounding 103, police said.
There has been a spike in violence, particularly outside the Iraqi capital, in recent days. Iraq is gripped by rampant violence between majority Shi'ites and minority Sunnis that has killed tens of thousands in the past year.
On Tuesday two truck bombs killed 85 people in a Shi'ite area of Tal Afar in northern Iraq. In the hours after those blasts Shi'ite gunmen, including police, shot dead up to 70 Sunni Arab men in reprisal.
The top US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, confirmed on Thursday police appeared to have carried out "retribution killings" after the bombings, which he blamed on al Qaeda. Iraq's Sunni vice president urged the Shi'ite-led government to do more to purge the security forces of militias.
In Khalis, one car bomb exploded in a commercial area and a second at a police checkpoint leading to the police headquarters and court building, police said. A third bomber attacked police patrols rushing to the scene.
"It was a scene of horror. There were charred bodies and human remains scattered about," said one policeman who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A survivor of the Shaab market blast in Baghdad, Wissam Hashim Ali, 27, told Reuters the market had been "very, very crowded" at the time of the blasts.
"I saw heads separated from the bodies and legs blown off," he said in hospital, where he was receiving treatment for his wounds, which were not serious.
Maliki's office said in a statement the prime minister condemned the bombs and called on Iraqis "not to let evil-doers have their way and to co-operate with security forces, who are determined to cleanse Iraq of terrorism".
New US Ambassador Ryan Crocker told his swearing-in ceremony that "terrorists, insurgents and militias continue to threaten security in Baghdad and around the country" and called Iraq America's "most critical foreign policy challenge".
The US Senate, following the House of Representatives, passed a war-funding bill on Thursday that sets a goal of withdrawing all US combat soldiers from Iraq within a year.
President George W. Bush, who has vowed to veto the measure, is sending up to 30,000 additional troops to Iraq, most of them to support a major security crackdown under way in Baghdad, epicentre of the violence. While this crackdown has succeeded in reducing the number of deaths in the capital, violence has surged elsewhere.