At least 130 others were wounded in the blast in Hilla, a mainly Shia town 100km south of the capital, Baghdad.

The car, reportedly packed with explosives and mortar shells, detonated near a queue of people applying for police jobs near a crowded market.

The blast was so powerful it nearly vapourised the suicide bomber’s car, leaving only its engine partially intact.

“The suicide bomber came from a nearby alleyway,” said eye witness Zeyd Shamran.

“It was a grey Mitsubishi. There were two people in it and when it stopped one man got out, shook hands and kissed the other man.”

Moments later the car exploded, he said.

“I was lined up near the medical centre, waiting for my turn for the medical exam in order to apply for work in the police,” Abdullah Salih told the Associated Press.

“Suddenly I heard a very big explosion. I was thrown several metres away and I had burns in my legs and hands, then I was taken to the hospital,” he said.

29-year-old Muhsin Hadi broke his leg in the blast.

“I was lucky because I was the last person in line when the explosion took place,” he told AP.

The death toll is the highest from a single attack since the fall of Saddam Hussein in April 2003, making Monday one of the bloodiest days of the two-year insurgency.

The worst day was last March, when more than 170 people were killed and hundreds wounded in a series of suicide bombings in Baghdad and the holy city of Kerbala, just west of Hilla.

The director of the Hilla teaching hospital, Mohammed Dia, told the BBC the explosion was far worse than anything the town had experienced before.

He said the number of dead was likely to rise, partly because some of the injured were in a serious condition, and partly because some of the victims had been blown to pieces.

“All the hospital’s rooms, even those used for cardiology, are filled with the wounded,” he said.

A medical official told the Reuters news agency local people had been called on to donate blood and that expert assistance had been requested from further afield.

A spokesman for Iraq’s Red Crescent Society said the agency was also sending emergency medicine and doctors to the town.

The attack came as Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said Iraq’s security forces were still unable to take on the insurgency without the help of US troops.

“Iraqis should be able to start taking over more and more security responsibilities very soon,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

“But we will continue to need and to seek assistance for some time to come.”

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