Kufa, 100 miles south of Baghdad, is a stronghold of the Mahdi Army militia, which is loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. U.S. officials have expressed fears that Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida are carefully picking their targets to provoke retaliatory violence to derail efforts to stabilize the country.
The blast sent flames through a nearby two-story kebab restaurant, charring the interior. Angry residents demanded better protection and accused authorities of fortifying their own homes and offices at the expense of the public.
"They do not care about the fate of the poor. We demand real, effective security measures to protect us," said 29-year-old Laith Hussein, who helped carrying some of the wounded to the hospital.
The predominantly Shiite southern areas have seen a spike in violence and unrest, blamed in part on militants who have fled a security crackdown in Baghdad. The U.S.-led offensive is intended to curb violence and allow the Shiite-led government some breathing room to implement reforms, including proposals to empower minority Sunnis Arabs and help end the insurgency. There has been little evidence, though, of any movement toward those reforms.
Still, Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi appeared to back away from a threat to lead a walkout from the government.
"I can say that we can, God willing, build an ambitious future based on a real partnership and joint understanding. And I think it is very important to go ahead with the political project," al-Hashemi told reporters Monday after a late-night meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite.
Ali Baban, the Sunni planning minister, reaffirmed Tuesday that the Sunni bloc had no plans to quit the government.
At least 68 people were killed or found dead nationwide Tuesday, more than half of them apparent victims of so-called sectarian death squads usually run by the Shiite militias. Twenty-five of the bullet-riddled bodies were found in Baghdad, all but five on the predominantly Sunni western side of the Tigris River where sectarian violence appears to be on the rise.
A roadside bomb also killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded another southeast of Baghdad.