At least 38 killed as explosions rock Iraqi cities

Bomb blasts rip through three cities killing 38 people, including 34 who were at a market in the southern city of Kut.

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BAGHDAD // Bomb blasts ripped through three Iraqi cities Monday morning, killing 38 people, including 34 who were gathered at a market in the southern city of Kut and shattering what had been a relatively peaceful holy month of Ramadan.

The violence struck from the northern city of Kirkuk to the southern cities of Najaf and Kut, and underlined the persistent ability of insurgents to wreak havoc at a time when Iraqi officials are weighing whether they are able to protect the country without the assistance of American troops.

The worst violence was in the southern city of Kut, 160 kilometres southeast of Baghdad, where twin explosions went off as construction workers were gathered in a market selling generators and other appliances.

Police spokesman Lt. Col. Dhurgam Mohammed Hassan said the first bomb went off in a freezer used to keep drinks cold. Then as rescuers and onlookers gathered, a parked car bomb exploded.

The top medical official in the province where Kut is located, Diaa al-Aboudi, said 34 people died in the explosion. Al-Aboudi put the number of the wounded from the twin blasts at 64.

At roughly the same time, a suicide car bomber plowed his vehicle into a checkpoint outside a police building just outside the holy city of Najaf, said Luay al-Yassiri, head of the Najaf province security committee.

Police opened fire on the vehicle when the driver refused to stop at the checkpoint, and then the vehicle exploded. Al-Yassiri said four people were killed and 32 injured; among the dead were two policemen and two civilians.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, a car bomb exploded next to a police patrol Monday morning, injuring four police officers. Then about 30 minutes later, one person was killed when a motorcycle with a bomb planted inside it exploded, also in Kirkuk.

The bombings followed just hours after four bombs blew up near a Syrian Orthodox Church in Kirkuk late Sunday. No one was injured in the attack but the walls of the church were damaged.

Violence has dropped considerably in Iraq from the heyday of the war when such bloody bombings were an almost daily occurrence. But the persistence of the violence in Iraq, albeit at a lower level, underscores the ability of insurgents to undermine the country's security.

The Kut blasts were the first major act of violence since Iraq's political leaders earlier this month announced that they would begin negotiations with the United States over whether to keep a small number of American forces in the country past December 31.

The last such large single bombing came on July 5, when 37 people died during an explosion in Taji, north of Baghdad.

All American forces are to leave the country by the end of this year but both Iraqi and US officials have expressed concern about the ability of Iraqi forces to protect the country.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for Monday's attacks.