BAGHDAD, Iraq -- A suicide car bomber detonated his payload in a market in central Basra yesterday afternoon, killing at least 27 people and wounding at least 67, the police and local officials in Basra said.
The bombing was seen as a direct challenge to the authority of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, who had visited Basra three days earlier and imposed a state of emergency. The bombing left a twisted hulk of smoking metal and puddles of blood.
It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack. A Sunni Arab cleric was killed by gunmen Friday night, leading local officials to suspect sectarian motives. But Shiite militias have been fighting each other intensely in recent months, causing security in Basra to deteriorate sharply. And the bombing, the fourth in that city since the U.S. invasion, could also have been part of that breakdown.
A worker in a U.N. representative office in Basra said yesterday that about three-quarters of their Iraqi staff had submitted their resignations recently because of threats by an insurgent group.
Local political leaders lashed out at Iraq's central government.
"The government came from Baghdad, they set up a commission, they handed all the files to the governor, and then they returned to Baghdad," said Majed al-Sari, a local politician.
The bombing capped another day of violence. Gunmen ambushed five Russian Embassy workers as they were shopping blocks from their residence in western Baghdad, killing one and kidnapping the others. Elsewhere, four Iraqis were killed and 19 were found dead, police said.
The attack on the embassy workers, which took place about 2 p.m. in Mansour, a neighborhood that has recently been terrorized by Sunni Arab insurgents, was confirmed by Russia's Foreign Ministry.
Witnesses reported seeing the Russians shopping near the embassy. One was checking his car's engine, and another was standing near a shop. Gunmen in three cars drove up to them, blocking their path. One embassy worker tried to get away, a witness said, but was shot dead, and the other four went with the kidnappers without resisting.
Sunni Arab insurgents have gradually asserted control over large areas of western Baghdad. They have been pressing farther east and in recent months have taken areas in Mansour. Even with the increased violence, embassies are still operating in the city.
Also yesterday, Adnan al-Kazimi, an adviser to al-Maliki, said the government would press its own investigation of the killings at Ishaqi, a town north of Baghdad, where as many as nine civilians were killed during a U.S. raid on a building suspected of being a safe house for al-Qaida operatives.
The U.S. military command said yesterday that it had cleared the raid's commander, who was not named, of any wrongdoing, after the Iraqi police charged that Americans had executed the civilians.
"Looking at this incident and the way it's been reported really leaves a big question mark," al-Kazimi said, referring to Ishaqi. "How could such an act happen, and why should four young children be killed?"
Iraqi political leaders continued to negotiate over the Interior and Defense ministry posts, with the largest Shiite bloc meeting to discuss choices. Al-Maliki said last week that he would announce his choices today, but a U.S. official said Friday that there were still 10 candidates for each position.
Ambulance workers found eight heads along a road near Baquba, Reuters reported.
The workers found small paper notes with the heads that identified one of the victims as Sheik Abdel Aziz al-Mashhadani. He was associated with a Sunni mosque near Baghdad. The note accused him of killing four Shiite doctors. The other seven victims were cousins, Reuters said.
Also in Baquba, gunmen killed four police officers at a checkpoint.
In Baghdad, 11 bodies were found, including three in the Tigris River.
A video statement by a man claiming to be terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi surfaced Friday, Al-Jazeera said. He called on Sunni Arabs to kill Shiites, a command that has been issued before.