BAGHDAD — A car bomb tore through a crowded livestock market south of Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 13 people in a mainly Shiite area that the U.S. military has described as one of the safest in Iraq.
The blast, which wounded 57 others, struck the market at the height of trading, scattering animal carcasses and human remains across the dirt.
"We had just started to have our breakfast in a tea shop inside the livestock market when we saw huge flames rising, and people started to run," Hussein Abdul-Kadir said. "We saw several bodies and carcasses, some burned and on the ground."
Abdul-Kadir, one of dozens of merchants, farmers, butchers and buyers at the market, said many people carried the wounded to their cars to take them to the hospital.
The attack _ on the outskirts of Hillah, a city 60 miles south of Baghdad _ was Iraq's deadliest in three weeks and underscored the dangers still facing this country as the Americans prepare to withdraw by the end of 2011.
The previous attack, on Feb. 13, took place just 20 miles to the north in the town of Musayyib, where a female suicide bomber killed 40 Shiite pilgrims.
Both bombings occurred in Babil province, an area south of Baghdad where U.S. commanders have expressed increasing confidence in security gains following a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a Shiite militia cease-fire.
Hillah lies in Babil's mainly Shiite south. Musayyib is farther north where the population reflects a volatile mix of Sunnis and Shiites.
U.S. forces already have turned over responsibility for the province to the Iraqis. Maj. Gen. Michael Oates, the top U.S. general responsible for southern Iraq, said last month that he believes violence in his sector had fallen to such low levels that peace is "not reversible."
But he warned the Iraqi government needs to shore up the gains by providing essential services to its people.
Facing pressure to improve services, Iraq's parliament on Thursday passed a $58.6 billion budget for this year after agreeing to sharp cuts because of falling oil prices. But lawmakers then adjourned until April 14 after failing again to elect a new parliamentary speaker.
The 2009 budget was approved after political blocs reached a compromise to break a weekslong deadlock, according to Sami al-Atroushi, a member of the parliament's finance committee.
The government's original spending proposal was about $79 billion. But it had to make painful choices after oil prices dipped from a mid-July high of nearly $150 a barrel to under $45 a barrel.
The measure now must be approved by Iraq's three-member presidential council led by President Jalal Talabani.
Thursday's bombing occurred when a parked car exploded between a thoroughfare and the market in Hamza al-Gharbi, a short distance from Hillah.
Although relatively quiet over the past year, the Hillah area had been the site of many deadly bombings, including one of the worst attacks in Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. In February 2005, a suicide car bomber killed 125 national guard and police recruits in Hillah.
In March 2007, two suicide bombers struck a crowd of Shiite pilgrims, killing 120. And in February of that year, suicide bombers struck a market, killing 73.
Health officials initially said 10 people were killed and 60 wounded in Thursday's attack. But three died after being taken to the hospital, raising the death toll to 13.
All the victims were civilians, Iraqi police Maj. Muthana Khalid said. About 15 sheep also were killed, witnesses said.
In other violence, a roadside bomb struck the car of a member of a government-backed Sunni group in southwestern Baghdad, killing him and wounding three civilians, according to police.
Meanwhile, one of Iran's most powerful political and religious figures, former Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani, met with influential Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad.
Many Sunni Arabs have protested Rafsanjani's trip, including hundreds who took to the streets Wednesday in Ramadi, 70 miles west of the capital. Iraq's Sunni Arab minority has lost the dominant position it enjoyed under its patron, Saddam Hussein, and is wary of the growing influence of Shiite Iran.
Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, canceled a planned meeting earlier in the week with Rafsanjani, citing previously scheduled engagements, according to al-Hashemi's Web site.
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub and Qassim Abdul-Zahra contributed to this report.