BAGHDAD – A car bomb ripped through a historic Shiite Muslim district of Baghdad Saturday, killing at least 24 people and wounding at least 46, Iraqi police said. The U.S. military put the death toll at 18.

The bombing in Kadhimiyah, a holy area for Shiite Muslims and the home to the tombs of two Imams, or spiritual leaders, underscores fear that the security gains of the past year are fragile and easily reversible, even in the country’s capital.

Only a month ago, the bridge between Kadhimiyah and the Sunni neighborhood Adhamiyah was a scene of joy. In a sign that the worst had passed, the bridge between the Sunni and Shiite neighborhoods, which had been closed for years, was reopened.

Earlier this month, more than 55 people were killed in a bombing at a restaurant near the oil-rich northern city of Kirkuk where Kurds, Sunni Arabs and Turkmen are vying for control. The bombing on Saturday was the largest in Baghdad since Nov. 10, when three bombs killed 28 and injured 68 in Adhamiyah.

At about noon on Saturday, a car detonated near buses that were picking up and dropping off visitors on their way to the Shiite shrine. A ball of fire erupted in the crowd.

At the Kadhimiyah hospital, where 22 bodies were taken and more than 40 of the wounded were brought, hospital officials hurried to treat victims.

Mahmoud Talib, 43, a vendor in the bustling marketplace in the Shiite district, remembers only a loud boom and a ball of fire that knocked him down as he spoke to his son. When he awoke, he was in the hospital.

“I saw a big ball of flame coming towards me, and I couldn’t see or remember anything,” he said. “I found that my face was burned and my body was burned.”

A man and his fiancee had gone to Kadhimiyah, which is known for its vast silver and gold shops, to pick out a jewelry set from the groom’s family to the bride according to Arab tradition. But the couple never bought the jewelry and never took their vows – the bombing killed them, along with the man’s mother, his future mother-in-law and his brother.

Guards searched ambulances for explosives before letting them transport the wounded to the emergency room, and other vehicles were banned from approaching the hospital. By 7 p.m., more than 20 people were still in critical condition in the hospital, a nurse said.

Soon after the bombing, family members began to arrive and run to the morgue to search for their loved ones among the dead. The wounded screamed in pain, and those who grieved wailed.

“Why, God?” one woman said. “God, why my son?”

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