Page last updated at 07:58 GMT, Friday, 6 March 2009

Car bomb hits Iraq cattle market

Damaged vehicles at the bomb blast site near Hilla
The car bomb killed people and animals at a livestock market

At least 12 people have been killed and more than 40 wounded in a bomb blast near a livestock market in Iraq.

A car bomb exploded as people were buying and selling cattle in the busy market in Hamza, near the city of Hilla in Babil province, police said.

This is one of the biggest attacks in Iraq in recent months, in a part of the country that was relatively peaceful.

Although Iraq has been hit by a spate of attacks in recent weeks, the level of violence is much lower than it was.

In a separate incident, gunmen in the capital Baghdad shot at an interior ministry general, Salaam Salman, critically wounding him and two bodyguards.

Grim scene

The market attack took place in Hamza, a rural, mainly Shia town in Babil province some 130km (75 miles) south of Baghdad.

Cattle merchants, farmers, butchers and buyers had been gathering for one of the busiest trading days of the week when the parked car exploded at around 0900 local time (0600 GMT).

One eyewitness described a grim scene of bodies and animal carcasses strewn around the area following the blast.

"Blood and meat were everywhere," butcher Mohammed Abbas told the Associated Press.

Several policemen are thought to have been among the casualties.

It is not clear who carried out the attack, although analysts say it has some hallmarks of al-Qaeda-linked militants who tend to favour heavily-populated targets such as markets and mosques.

Past violence

Babil province has a mixed population of Shia and Sunni Muslims and has seen much sectarian violence and attacks on US forces in the past.

But this region has been one of the more peaceful parts of Iraq in recent months, the BBC's Mike Sergeant in Baghdad reports.

Violence abated in Babil partly because former Sunni rebels had joined so-called Awakening Councils and turned against al-Qaeda militants.

The US military handed over control of security in the province to Iraqi forces last October.

While large attacks such as the latest in Hamza have become rarer, Iraqis still experience violence on a daily basis.

However, the level of violence remains much lower than in the past. For instance, just over 250 Iraqis were killed in February of this year, compared with 3,000 violent deaths reported in February 2007.

The fear is that the number of attacks could begin to rise again, our correspondent says.

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