BAGHDAD (AFP) – A string of attacks against Shiite pilgrims in the past three days killed at least 68 people in Baghdad, security officials said Thursday, exposing the problems of protecting the capital from insurgents.
The death toll was another blow to the leaders of a country which remains riven by sectarian strife and has only a caretaker government four months after a general election in which no clear winner emerged.
Almost half of those killed — 28 — died on Wednesday night when a suicide bomber wearing an explosives-filled belt struck pilgrims in Adhamiyah, a Sunni district across the Tigris river from Kadhimiyah, in the north of the capital.
Kadhimiyah is named after Musa Kadhim, the seventh of 12 revered imams in Shiite Islam, who was poisoned in 799 AD, and whose death the pilgrims have honoured in recent days.
Many of the faithful cross a bridge between the two neighbouring districts to reach the shrine. The suicide bomber also wounded 136 people while 11 others were killed on Wednesday across the capital in a series of bomb attacks.
The new death toll issued on Thursday came as tens of thousands of Shiite faithful started to disperse from the shrine and make their way home.
Four bombings in the Iraqi capital on Thursday killed nine people, raising the death toll and bringing the number of wounded to more than 400 people since Tuesday, the officials said.
A roadside bomb in the central Bab al-Muazam neighbourhood killed four people and wounded 46, while a second bomb in the southeastern Mashtal district killed three and wounded 31, a security official said.
The Shiite majority in Iraq have been a main target of Sunni Arab armed groups since the US-led invasion of 2003 toppled now executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.
Pilgrimages to the Shiite holy places have been repeatedly hit.
Tens of thousands of Shiite worshippers streamed into Baghdad in recent days amid heavy security for the pilgrimage, but even heightened measures failed to protect them as they travelled to the mausoleum.
Hundreds of tents were erected to feed people as they poured into the capital for the event.
Traffic was banned on Tuesday on several bridges spanning the Tigris River, increasing already bad congestion in the capital, where traffic control is already complicated by hundreds of security checkpoints.
The mausoleum has previously been targeted. In April 2009, two female suicide bombers detonated their payloads near the shrine, killing 65 people, including 20 Iranian pilgrims, and wounding 120 others.
The threat of violence did not dent the enthusiasm of worshippers, some of whom were planning to pray for a breakthrough in the political deadlock that has blocked a new government taking office after March 7 parliamentary polls.
Iyad Allawi, a Shiite former premier, insists as the election’s narrow victor that he should become prime minister, especially as his broadly secular Iraqiya coalition had strong backing in Sunni-dominated provinces.
He has warned that a failure to see Sunni Arab voters properly represented in power could reignite the sectarian violence that saw tens of thousands killed in the years following the ouster of Saddam.
Allawi narrowly pushed serving Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shiite-led State of Law alliance into second place in the election, but the incumbent is doggedly fighting to stay on and serve a second term.