A taxi packed with explosives blew up outside a crowded restaurant on Wednesday evening in the southern city of Basra, killing 16 Iraqis and wounding two dozen others, hours after a bomb killed 4 American contractors in the same city.
The bombings were the worst violence in more than a year in Iraq's second largest city, and raised the prospect of sectarian violence on a scale that Basra has not seen before. The guerrilla attacks that plague the rest of the country have been rare in Basra, where Shiite religious parties and their militias maintain a tight grip on security.
The parked taxi exploded at 8:45 p.m. in the central Khalij al Arabi neighborhood, near large crowds of people walking and shopping, witnesses said. The blast shredded the facade of the restaurant, Sayid Khaled, and destroyed two minibuses in the street outside.
It left torn power lines hanging in the street and shreds of tomato and bread mingling with blood and glass in the wreckage.
The motive was not clear. But sectarian killings have been on the rise in the area in recent months, with Sunni Arabs accusing Shiite militias of being behind a wave of assassinations of Sunnis and attacks on two Sunni mosques last week, reports The New York Times.
"All four individuals worked for a private security firm supporting the regional U.S. Embassy office in Basra," Mitchell said in a statement. Their identities were not released pending notification of relatives.
AP Television News videotape showed an overturned white SUV in a ravine next to a busy highway. Six British Army Land Rovers, with Iraqi police cars and two civilian ambulances were parked nearby. British soldiers were seen loading a body from the SUV into a military ambulance.
An estimated 20,000 civilians are believed to be working for private defense contractors in Iraq. More than 200 have died there, including 13 employed by Moyock, N.C.-based Blackwater Security Consulting.
Southern Iraq, where some 8,500 British troops are deployed, has been mostly calm since U.S. and British forces occupied Iraq more than two years ago.
However, violence has increased there in the past two months, informs WPVI.