By Kareem Raheem and Aseel Kami
BAGHDAD, March 20 (Reuters) - At least 26 explosions struck cities and towns across Iraq on Tuesday, killing at least 49 people and wounding more than 200, despite a massive security clampdown ahead of next week's Arab League summit in Baghdad.
It was Iraq's bloodiest day in nearly a month, and the breadth of coordinated bombs in more than a dozen cities showed an apparent determination by insurgents to prove that the government cannot keep the country safe ahead of the summit.
Iraq is due to host the meeting for the first time in 20 years and the government is anxious to show it can maintain security following the withdrawal of U.S. troops in December.
"The goal of today's attacks was to present a negative image of the security situation in Iraq," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters.
"Security efforts will be escalated to counteract terrorist groups' attacks and to fill loopholes used by them to infiltrate security, whether in Baghdad or other provinces."
Tuesday's deadliest incident occurred in the southern Shi'ite Muslim holy city of Kerbala, where twin explosions killed 13 people and wounded 48 during the morning rush hour, according to Jamal Mahdi, a Kerbala health department spokesman.
"The second explosion caused the biggest destruction. I saw body parts, fingers, hands thrown on the road," 23-year-old shop owner Murtadha Ali Kadhim told Reuters.
"The security forces are stupid because they always gather at the site of an explosion and then a second explosion occurs. They become a target."
Blasts also struck in the capital, in Baiji, Baquba, Daquq, Dibis, Dhuluiya, Kirkuk, Mosul, Samarra and Tuz Khurmato to the north, in Falluja and Ramadi to the west, and Hilla, Latifiya, Mahmudiya and Mussayab to the south. Police defused bombs in Baquba, Falluja and Mosul.
Most of the blasts targeted police checkpoints and patrols.
"This latest spate of attacks is very likely to have been co-ordinated by a large and well-organised group. It is likely an attempt to show the authorities that their security measures are insignificant," said John Drake, a senior risk consultant at AKE Group, which studies security in Iraq for corporate clients.
Army and police forces are frequently targeted in Iraq, where bombings and shootings still occur on a daily basis. Sunni Muslim insurgent groups say that despite the withdrawal of U.S. forces, they will not lay down arms and will continue to battle the Shi'ite-led government.
Although overall violence has declined since the height of sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007, Iraqis worry whether their government has the wherewithal to impose security nine years after the U.S.-led invasion that overthrew Saddam Hussein.
Tuesday's attacks were the biggest since Feb. 23 when dozens of explosions across the country killed at least 60 people.
The Arab League summit on March 27-29 will be the first held in Baghdad since Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Security has been stepped up across the city's checkpoints, where thorough searches have backed up traffic for hours in recent days.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, two car bombs exploded near a police headquarters, killing nine people and wounding 42, police and health sources said. In Baghdad, a car bomb near the provincial council building killed four and wounded 11.
Police in the northeastern city of Baquba said they had found and defused nine bombs, including one in a booby-trapped car which was parked on the road with a decapitated body in the driver's seat and the man's head in his lap.
By late afternoon, the toll from all the bombings compiled by Reuters from police and hospital sources stood at 49 killed and 235 wounded.
On Monday evening, bombers struck five times in the northern province of Diyala, killing at least three people and wounding more than 30, police said.
The government says it will be deploying up to 100,000 additional troops and police in Baghdad to impose extra security measures during the summit - an important set piece for the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. (Reporting by Kareem Raheem, Aseel Kami and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk, Imad al-Khuzaie in Diwaniya and Habib al-Zubaidi and Ali al-Rubaie in Hilla; Writing by Serena Chaudhry; Editing by Peter Graff and Ben Harding)