HILLA Iraq (Reuters) - A car bomb exploded near a hospital in the southern Iraqi city of Hilla late on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people, police and medical sources said.
No-one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, but Shi'ites are often a target for Sunni Islamist insurgents who have been regaining ground and momentum in Iraq over the past year.
The blast occurred around 20 meters from the main gate of Hilla General Hospital, outside a busy coffee shop where patients' relatives often sit to rest and buy food and drinks in the predominantly Shi'ite Muslim city.
"I was on my way to buy some juice for my sick uncle who was in the hospital when I saw a big fireball," said eyewitness Ahmed Shirba.
"I saw many dead bodies on the ground: some were charred, others were still on fire. I saw severed heads and limbs. The bodies of two policemen who had been guarding the area were on the ground, both with their legs ripped off."
A further 58 people were wounded in the blast, and houses nearby were severely damaged, the sources said.
A senior security official who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity blamed the attack on the Sunni militant Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is also active across the border in Syria.
The official suspected the attack was in retaliation for recent security operations and airstrikes launched by the army against ISIL's strongholds in northern Hilla and other areas like Jurf al-Sakhar and Iskandariya.
Nearly 800 people were killed in violence across Iraq in May, according to the United Nations, making it the deadliest month so far this year.
That figure excludes casualties in the western province of Anbar, where the Iraqi army has been fighting tribal and insurgent groups since they overran two cities at the start of the year.
Bloodshed remains below the levels seen in 2006 and 2007 when sectarian Shi'ite-Sunni killings reached their peak, but last year was Iraq's deadliest since violence began to ease in 2008.
At least 17 people were killed in scattered attacks across the country earlier in the day, including two car bombs explosions that left eight people dead in the northern city of Kirkuk, police and medics said.
(Reporting by Ali al-Rubaie and additional reporting by Isra' al Rubei'i; Writing by Isabel Coles; editing by Ralph Boulton)