BAGHDAD (AP) — Insurgents plotting to derail next week's Arab League meeting in Baghdad unleashed bloody attacks across Iraq on Tuesday, killing 46 people. The government vowed not to be scared off from hosting the summit — the first in the country in a generation and a chance to prove it is moving toward normalcy after years of war.
Bombs struck Shiite pilgrims in the holy city of Karbala, set cars on fire in Kirkuk and targeted security forces and government officials in Baghdad and surrounding cities. Iraqis out shopping or eating at restaurants on the bright, spring day fell victim to the onslaught: More than 200 people were wounded in fewer than six hours.
"Dozens of cars were on fire," said a panicked Saman Majid, who had just arrived at his job at a police station in Kirkuk, 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad, when a car in the parking lot exploded.
Thirteen people, most of them police officers, were killed and 59 injured in that attack alone, said Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir.
"It was a scene from hell, where there is only a huge fire and dead people and nothing else," Majid said.
The attacks were not entirely unexpected: Government and security officials have warned for weeks that al-Qaida and Sunni sympathizers would try to thwart the League summit by sowing fear about Baghdad's stability. Plans for the capital to host the meeting last year were postponed, in part because of concerns about security.
Despite numerous roadblocks, checkpoints and other security measures ringing Baghdad, Tuesday's violence showed how easily the militants penetrated the sensitive heart of the capital. A bomb exploded near the Foreign Ministry and offices for security directors overseeing the summit. Another blew up outside the Green Zone shortly after dawn, its blast shaking windows in buildings across the Tigris River.
The Iraqi wing of al-Qaida said it was behind the bombing outside the Foreign Ministry. "Death is approaching you, when you least expect it," the Islamic state of Iraq, a local front group for al-Qaida, taunted in a statement posted Tuesday afternoon on a militant website.
The Shiite-led government staunchly stood by its $400 million plans to host the summit, which leaders have called a crucial step for Iraq to showcase its improved stability following the sectarian fighting a few years ago that almost pulled the country into civil war.
"Such cowardly acts will not deter the national government and the leadership of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the success of the Arab summit in Baghdad to receive the guests and leaders who are invited," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said in a statement. The attack outside his headquarters killed three passers-by, he said.
"We condemn this terrorist act and those politically frustrated terrorists who did it," Zebari said.
In all, eight cities were hit Tuesday in what appeared to be coordinated attacks, mostly against Shiite pilgrims and police and government officials. They served as a gloomy reminder of the violence that has wreaked chaos across Iraq since the U.S. invasion exactly nine years ago.
Next week's Arab League summit is the first to be held in Baghdad since March 1990 — less than five months before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Sanctions, including a no-fly zone over Iraq, and two wars made Baghdad an impossible site for the gathering until recently.
There were no immediate reports from the League's 22 member nations that the meeting would be postponed, as happened last year. Arab League Secretary-General Nabil Elaraby strongly condemned the attacks in a statement and urged Iraqi officials to "deal with these crimes."
And more attacks may be on the way. A senior Iraqi military intelligence official said confessions from recently captured insurgents indicate that al-Qaida may have used only 40 percent of the arsenal of violence it has stowed up for the summit.
The senior official described "big dens" of al-Qaida insurgents who have evaded arrest and are biding their time in Baghdad.
Still, a second senior Iraqi security official said the security cordon around Baghdad seemed to have worked, because the majority of attacks took place outside the capital, far from where the Arab leaders are to gather. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
In Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad, two car bombs exploded in a crowded shopping and restaurant area, killing 13 and wounding 50, said local provincial council member Hussein Shadhan al-Aboudi. Five Iranian pilgrims were among the dead.
Bloody victims lay on stretchers outside Karbala hospital operating rooms as they waited for treatment. Charred, twisted cars were towed away from the blast sites as shopkeepers tried to sweep up the wreckage.
Karbala is a destination for thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world who visit the golden shrines of two revered imams each day.
"The intention of these attacks is to destabilize the security situation in Karbala and other Iraqi cities and to shake the people's confidence in the government," al-Aboudi said. "It seems that the terrorists want to abort the upcoming Arab Summit in Baghdad. The message is directed to the Arab leaders that Iraq is not safe enough to be visited."
Iraqi citizens and lawmakers have questioned whether they would be safe during the Arab meeting or whether it makes them a target in deadly attacks aimed at scaring away the thousands of dignitaries and journalists from attending and, in effect, embarrassing the government. Zebari has said at least six Arab heads of state have committed to attending the final day of the summit, which is scheduled for March 27-29.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced a weeklong federal holiday in Baghdad, from March 25-31, when government offices will be shut down. Officials also will impose a curfew in parts of Baghdad on March 29 and try to curb violence by shutting off roads near the Green Zone and encouraging people to stay home.
Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, a Sunni, called for stepped up security as the summit approaches — and with it, the threat of more violence. The repeated attacks, he said, shows insurgents' intentions "to foil the Arab summit in Baghdad, in order to keep Iraq under the threat of violence and destruction."
Associated Press Writer Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Mazin Yahya in Baghdad and Yahya Barzjani in Sulaimaniyah, Iraq, contributed to this report. Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larajakesAP