BAGHDAD — Bombings across Iraq killed 44 people on Tuesday, striking at police and Shiite pilgrims in a torrent of violence that officials had dreaded in the run-up to a Baghdad meeting of the Arab world's top leaders, which the government hoped would showcase the nation's stability.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks, which also wounded nearly 200 people. But authorities have feared al-Qaida or its Sunni sympathizers would try to thwart next week's annual Arab League summit.
The gathering is to be held in Iraq for the first time in a generation. Plans for Baghdad to host the meeting last year were postponed, in part because of concerns about Iraq's security.
One of the deadliest strikes on Tuesday hit the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where officials said two car bombs exploded in a crowded shopping and restaurant area. Thirteen people were killed and another 50 were wounded in that attack, said local provincial council member Hussein Shadhan al-Aboudi.
"The intention of these attacks is to destabilize the security situation in Karbala and other Iraqi cities and to shake the people's confidence on the government," al-Aboudi said. "It seems that the terrorists want to abort the upcoming Arab Summit in Baghdad. The message is directed to the Arab leaders that Iraq is not safe enough to be visited."
Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad, is a destination for thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world who visit the golden shrines of two revered imams each day. Five Iranian pilgrims were among the dead.
The wave of violence began after dawn Tuesday.
Militants blew up the house of a police official in the western city of Fallujah, planted bombs near the fortified Green Zone in Baghdad, set off an explosion at a police station in the northern city of Kirkuk and attacked restaurants and shopping areas in two southern towns.
In all, eight cities were hit in attacks that mostly appeared to target police and government officials.
Police and health officials in each city who confirmed the casualties spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
Saman Majid, a cameraman for the Kirkuk police department said he had just arrived at work when the bomb outside the station exploded. He said he was wounded by small shrapnel that hit his head and ran to the Kirkuk General Hospital for treatment instead of waiting for an ambulance.
"I quickly got out of my car to see burned bodies trapped inside the cars," he said. "Dozens of cars were on fire. It was a scene from hell, where there is only a huge fire and dead people and nothing else."
Thirteen people, most of them policemen, were killed in Kirkuk, said Brig. Gen. Sarhad Qadir. An additional 59 were wounded. Kirkuk is 180 miles (290 kilometers) north of Baghdad.
Officials have been bracing for attacks in the run-up to the Arab League summit during which the Shiite-led government hopes to showcase Iraq's improved security and stability since the sectarian fighting a few years ago that almost pulled the country into civil war.
Insurgents are seeking to belie Baghdad's better image, and officials expect more attacks as hundreds of dignitaries and journalists converge on the capital next week.
Two of the attacks Tuesday hit right outside the Green Zone where the summit will be held.
Last week, the government said Iraq would deploying an unprecedented number of security forces to protect the capital for the summit. An estimated 26,000 police and soldiers — including more than 4,000 from Iraq's north and south — are expected to be deployed in Baghdad.
But citizens and lawmakers have questioned whether Baghdad would be safe during the Arab meeting.
Associated Press Writer Lara Jakes contributed to this report.