Reports said the blast was so powerful it obliterated the attacker’s car, leaving only a charred engine. The car was said to be packed with TNT and mortar shells.
An eyewitness -- a truck driver -- was seated in a nearby restaurant when the bomb exploded. He describes what happened.
“We parted the car here and we went to have breakfast in the restaurant. An Opel car came from here and exploded near the restaurant,” he said.
Many of the victims were Iraqis seeking state jobs outside of a medical center. Others were bystanders at a nearby market.
“Hundreds were hurt in the explosion," an unidentified policeman. "Most of them innocent people who have market stalls and an old photographer whom we know in Hilla, an old man. It is a criminal act, which neither God nor the people can accept. What can we say?”
It was not immediately clear who carried out the attack.
Attacks by the anti-occupation insurgency had appeared to diminish after the 30 January elections -- giving rise to the hope that the Iraqi and U.S. militaries were finally gaining the upper hand.
The attacks have often targeted Iraqis working with the U.S.-led coalition or those applying to join the new Iraqi Army or the police in a bid to intimidate them.
Walid Janabi, the governor of Hilla's Babil Province, said this was not the case with today’s attack. He said that “this criminal act targeted the citizens who did not have any ties to the army and police and who have chosen to live in peace.”
The worst day of attacks in Iraq came in March 2004 when 171 people were killed in separate bombings in Karbala and Baghdad during the Shi’a religious festival of Ashura.
There was little immediate international reaction. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called the attack “callous” and said that British forces will help the Iraqi government track down those responsible for the attack.