Without speaking a word, police officer Ahmed Eid Majood, guarding one of the entrances to the bazaar in the southern Iraqi city of Hilla, lunged toward the man and wrapped his arms around his body.
At that moment, the man detonated a belt packed with explosives, killing the officer and dozens of other people Thursday afternoon, a police spokesman said. The blast sent a throng of shoppers at the covered market rushing toward another exit.
There, a second attacker detonated his bomb, laced with nails and shards of metal, killing far more people than the first, Capt. Muthana Ahmed said.
The bombers killed at least 63 people and injured more than 150, but Ahmed and hospital officials said the death toll could rise because many of the injuries being treated Thursday night were life-threatening. More than 40 Iraqi civilians and police died in other violence across the country, officials said.
The twin bombings in Hilla were the latest mass killing of Shiite Muslims in recent weeks, raising the possibility that Shiite militias would increase their retaliatory attacks against Sunnis. The U.S. and Iraqi governments are in the early stages of a new security plan intended to pacify Baghdad and some other parts of the country.
In Hilla, “people were going up and down the market as usual,” said Mohammed Saaid, 39, who was working in his sweets shop. “Suddenly there was thunder and lightning, and corpses were everywhere, and people were cut into pieces.”
The explosions came about a minute apart, police and witnesses said. They shattered windows and destroyed dozens of small shops that dot the marketplace near the Euphrates River.
“I was confused and terrified,” Saaid said in a telephone interview shortly after the attack. “I went out of my shop to check on my neighbors, and I saw a flood of blood. Men, women, children — all dead.”
Hilla, which is about 60 miles south of Baghdad, has experienced violence since the war began, but it is one of the least scarred cities in the country. The bazaar has been targeted twice before, by a suicide bomber and an improvised explosive device, each attack killing a handful of people.
Dozens of wounded were taken to nearby Hilla Hospital, where doctors devised additional operating rooms. Scores of seriously injured people were turned away to give priority to those in more dire condition.
“We are prepared, but not for such an amount of patients,” Talib Ali, a doctor at the hospital, said in a telephone interview. “We had to call doctors who are on vacation and those who had already left for their houses.”
Violence broke out at the hospital entrance as police clashed with survivors and relatives struggling to get into the seven-story building, witnesses and medical personnel said.
“Most of the wounded are in critical condition, and it’s possible that many of them will die,” the doctor said. “We have a shortage of bandages, and some of the wounds are being cleaned with Kleenex.”
After the morgue filled up, hospital staffers laid the corpses outside in body bags, the supply of which also ran out.
Laith Shahid, 34, who owns a pickle store in the bazaar, suffered burns on his arms and serious cuts on both legs from flying debris. He was quickly examined at the hospital.
“They gave me two tubes of ointment and sent me home,” he told a local journalist who relayed the comments to The Washington Post but asked that her name be withheld for security reasons.
People who live near the market began walking toward the hospital to donate blood, a witness said.
Ali Dabbagh, a spokesman for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said Thursday that Iraq will host a regional security conference next month that will include Syria and Iran — two neighboring countries with which the United States has declined to engage as part of its diplomatic and military efforts to secure and stabilize Iraq.
Dabbagh said at a news conference that a suspension of flights between Baghdad and Damascus, the Syrian capital, was unrelated to the security plan. Officials had said Wednesday that the suspension was a preliminary step in security efforts designed to tighten control of the borders. Dabbagh said the company that charters the flights fell behind on paperwork and would resume operations within days.
Other attacks were reported Thursday in various parts of the country. A car bomb exploded near the entrance to the law school at Salahaddin University in Tikrit, killing seven and wounding 23, according to Saad Salman, an Interior Ministry spokesman.
In Baghdad, a bomb was detonated inside a small bus in the commercial Karrada area, killing eight people and wounding 12.
In Qaim, near the Syrian border, a suicide bomber attacked near a police checkpoint, killing one officer, according to Hameed Ataallah, a doctor who treated people injured in the blast. It was the third attack on police since the U.S. military turned over control of security to local officials a month ago.
At least 25 other people were slain in mortar attacks, shootings and bombings elsewhere in the country, the ministry spokesman said.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military announced the death in combat Tuesday of a soldier in Anbar province in western Iraq. His name will be released after relatives are informed.
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Saad al-Izzi contributed to this report.