BAGHDAD — A powerful bomb killed more than 75 people Wednesday night at a market in Sadr City, Baghdad's main Shiite neighborhood, casting doubt on the readiness of Iraq's security forces to keep a latent insurgency in check as U.S. troops pull out of the capital and other cities.
The blast, the second in Iraq in less than a week to kill more than 70 people, happened six days before the Tuesday deadline for U.S. troops to retreat from urban outposts, the first of three withdrawal deadlines mandated under a security agreement.
The blast at the Mredi bird market occurred shortly after sundown, when the area was crowded. The explosives were concealed under vegetables in the carriage of a motorcycle parked at the edge of the market, which is off limits to vehicles, officials and witnesses said.
"I saw a big ball of fire," said Abu Ahmed, 50, who had been shopping. "We all dashed into the alleys, expecting another one to explode."
As the smoke began to clear, residents returned to the site to look for wounded people, who were loaded onto vehicles and wooden carts. About 20 minutes later, Iraqi soldiers arrived and began shooting in the air to disperse the crowd, witnesses said. Residents hurled insults, stones and shoes at the troops.
"People were very mad because they were very late," Abu Ahmed said of the soldiers. "They only sit on their chairs and watch people and play with cell phones."
Hospital officials at Imam Ali and Sadr hospitals, the area's two main medical centers, said in telephone interviews late Wednesday that they had received at least 75 bodies. More than 100 people were wounded, hospital officials said.
The attack, the deadliest in Sadr City in more than a year, came just days after the U.S. military closed its small outposts in the area at the Iraqi government's insistence.
"This is one of the biggest mistakes the U.S. has made," said Kadhum Irboee al-Quraishi, a local leader in Sadr City who has worked closely with the Americans. "Assassinations will start again, and the terrorists are going to show that Iraqi forces are not capable of receiving responsibility."
Maliki and U.S. commanders have said they expected the June 30 deadline to trigger an uptick in violence. Extremists, they say, are motivated by a desire to undermine the Iraqi government and to leave the impression that U.S. forces are retreating as security deteriorates.