BAGHDAD - Car bombs killed 17 people Wednesday in Baghdad - most of them at a wholesale produce market - fuelling concern about Iraqi capabilities less than two months before Iraq's army and police assume full responsibility for security in the country's cities.
An Iraqi military official blamed the latest bloodshed in part on ex-detainees released by U.S. forces who had returned to violence.
Some analysts have speculated that Sunni insurgent groups have regrouped following sharp setbacks suffered in fighting with U.S. and Iraqi forces over the last two years.
The main blast occurred about 7 a.m. at the entrance to the Rasheed wholesale produce market in the city's southern Dora area, killing 15 people and wounding nearly 50, according to police, hospitals and Interior Ministry officials. A second car bomb was found in the area and defused.
Hours later, another car bomb exploded in the capital's Karradah district, killing two people and wounding six, police said. The bomb apparently targeted a police patrol but missed.
Seven others were wounded when a bomb exploded Wednesday afternoon near Palestine Street in mostly Shiite eastern Baghdad, police said.
Officials who reported the casualty tolls spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not supposed to release the information.
Last month, at least 451 people were killed in political violence countrywide, compared with 335 in March, 288 in February and 242 in January, according to an Associated Press tally.
Although those death tolls are far lower than figures of 2006 and 2007, the trend is disturbing. April was also the deadliest month of the year for U.S. troops, with 18 deaths.
Most of the major bombings this year have struck Shiite areas, suggesting Sunni militants such as al-Qaida are responsible. The Rasheed market is in a mainly Sunni area, but the farmers who bring their crops there are predominantly Shiites.
Despite the rising death tolls, the Iraqi government has ruled out asking U.S. combat troops to remain in Iraqi cities after the June 30 deadline for their withdrawal under the U.S.-Iraq security agreement that took effect this year.
U.S. and Iraqi officials are gambling that Iraq's army and police are better prepared now to maintain security than they were three years ago, when a move by the U.S. military to scale down its presence in the cities was followed by a sharp rise in violence.
But some survivors of the Rasheed blast complained that security forces were lax in searching trucks used by farmers to bring fruits and vegetables to the market. Similar criticism has followed other major bombings in the Baghdad area.
"The security personnel are not searching the farmers who bring their vegetables to the market," survivor Raad Hussein told Associated Press Television News. "They search only private cars."
The departure of heavily armed American soldiers from bases inside the cities is important psychologically to many Iraqis, who are eager to regain control of their country after six years of war and U.S. military occupation.
Also under the security agreement, all U.S. troops are due to leave the country by the end of 2011.
Nevertheless, the recent increase in high-profile attacks has unnerved many Iraqis, who had hoped the worst of the violence was behind them.
"I swear that I have been feeling fear and worry over the last two months because of the return of explosions to Baghdad," said Mohammed Youssef, 36, a clothing merchant. "My trust in the Iraqi security forces has been shaken."
Osama Ahmed, 53, an official at the Ministry of Education, agreed that the recent attacks "have shaken peoples' confidence in the security gains and Iraqi security forces."
"We are worried that things will get worse as the Americans begin to withdraw because the militias and armed groups fear U.S troops," he said. "But after the U.S withdraws, they will resume their activities."
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told The AP on Tuesday that Iraqi forces were ready to take over their own security but needed help gathering intelligence to target insurgents and prevent attacks.
An Iraqi military spokesman, Maj.-Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, blamed some of the attacks on ex-detainees recently released by U.S. forces who had rejoined "criminal gangs and terrorist groups like al-Qaida in Iraq."
Al-Moussawi gave reporters no detailed figures but said several people behind last month's robbery and killing of goldsmiths in Baghdad had been released from the Camp Bucca detention facility in southern Iraq.
Since Jan. 1, the United States has freed 3,322 detainees under terms of the U.S.-Iraqi security agreement. It requires the U.S. to release all the remaining 11,941 detainees by the end of the year, except for those held under warrants issued by the Iraqi judiciary.
A spokesman for the detention command, Maj. Neal Fisher, said all those released so far this year were deemed "low threat detainees."