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A bombing on Monday evening killed 43 people near the Imam Hussein shrine in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, penetrating one of the most secure perimeters in Iraq, and Iraqi police officers at the scene and several witnesses said it had been carried out by a female suicide bomber.

The explosion, the deadliest attack in Karbala in nearly a year, overshadowed a Baghdad visit by Vice President Dick Cheney, who met with Iraqi and American leaders and extolled what he described as “phenomenal” security improvements in the country.

The explosion rocked central Karbala about 6 p.m. “Many people were killed and wounded,” said Abu Ahmed, 36, who minutes earlier had walked past the site and then came rushing back to help the wounded. “Everyone near the bomber was killed.”

Iraqi forces sealed off the area, and a grim pall descended on the city. Areas that are normally brisk evening shopping districts were deserted, and the shops were closed.

In the aftermath of the attack, a dispute broke out about what happened. Several witnesses and Iraqi policemen said the attack was by a female suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest. An American military statement also later attributed the bombing to a suicide attacker.

But hours after the bombing the Karbala police chief, Gen. Raed Shakir Jawdat, asserted that the explosion was from a large bomb that had been hidden in the area. He also told reporters in Karbala that he believed the bomb was made in the city.

The conflicting versions could not be reconciled. But if the accounts of other policemen and witnesses are correct, it would be one of the most devastating suicide bombings carried out by a woman. The number of female suicide bombers has increased recently, facilitated by Muslim customs that do not allow men to touch women, so they cannot be searched at security checkpoints. In a religious center like Karbala, most women wear a flowing head-to-toe black overgarment, known as an abaya, which provides an easy way to conceal an explosive vest or belt.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Nor was it clear whether the attack was meant to upstage visits to Iraq by Cheney and by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who, like Cheney, is a strong proponent of keeping large numbers of troops in the country.

Abdul Aal al-Yassiri, the leader of the provincial council in Karbala, said the final toll was 43 dead and 73 wounded, including eight Iranians.

North of Baghdad, two American soldiers were killed just after noon on Monday when a large roadside bomb exploded near their vehicle, the American military command in Baghdad reported. The soldiers were part of a team working to clear a roadway of bombs and other threats, the military said.

In Baghdad, Cheney signaled that a large reduction in troop levels is unlikely anytime soon. “It would be a mistake now to be so eager to draw down the force that we risk putting the outcome in jeopardy,” he said.