BAGHDAD (AP) – A car bomb exploded Saturday as Shiite pilgrims were boarding minibuses in Baghdad, killing at least six people, officials said, in a third straight day of attacks on travelers heading to a religious ceremony in Karbala.
Despite the violence, hundreds of thousands of worshippers streamed toward the twin golden domed mosques of Karbala, a Shiite religious center 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad. Men and women filed through separate gates to be searched.
The explosives-laden car blew up about 9 a.m. near minibuses picking up pilgrims in Baghdad’s mainly Shiite district of Shaab.
It was the latest in a series of bombings targeting Shiites heading for the Karbala festivities, which culminate Sunday. The deadliest attack came Thursday when a female suicide bomber killed at least 18 pilgrims resting on the side of the road south of Baghdad.
On Friday, a passenger van packed with explosives blew up at a bus station in Balad, north of Baghdad. The Balad hospital director, Qassim Hatam al-Qaisi, said nine people were killed and 40 were wounded.
The attacks have heightened concern that extremists are seeking to re-ignite the firestorm of sectarian massacres that pushed Iraq to the brink of civil war two years ago before thousands of American reinforcements were rushed to the country.
U.S.-backed Iraqi troops have stepped up security measures for the pilgrimage, but travelers remain vulnerable on the road.
Iraqi soldiers, meanwhile, arrested the head of a U.S.-funded Sunni group who was accused of “supporting terrorism” in a series of raids in the western Baghdad district of Jihad.
An Iraqi officer, who declined to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media, identified the suspect as Tahir Abdullah al-Hamdani, the head of the so-called awakening council in Jihad.
The U.S. military confirmed that a leader of the group was arrested but declined to identify him or give more details.
American commanders have said the Sunni revolt against al-Qaeda in Iraq was a key factor in a sharp decline in violence over the past year, but the movement has been troubled by friendly fire incidents and concerns about infiltration.
AP Television News video showed Iraqi soldiers combing the largely empty residential area and a blindfolded man sitting cross-legged next to three rows of Kalashnikov assault rifles.
Iraqi army officer Col. Ali Abboud Thamir said the raid was aimed at clearing the area of extremists so about 240 displaced families could return next week.
In Karbala, women in flowing black robes were searched by female guards at a separate checkpoint from the men. Iraqi security forces were taking no chances amid warnings that insurgents are increasingly using women to stage attacks, women can more easily hide explosives under their abayas and men are reluctant to search them.
Posters of Shiite religious leaders were confiscated for fear they might provoke attacks by followers of rival clerics, and mobile phones were banned because they could be used to trigger bombs.
Police cars and ambulances roamed the streets, while city officials set up dozens of tents around the city to provide food, water and emergency medical care. Dozens of army and police snipers could be seen on buildings throughout the city looking for signs of trouble.
The Shiite festival, Shabaniyah, celebrates the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th Shiite imam, who disappeared in the ninth century. Devout Shiites call him the Hidden Imam and believe he will return to restore peace and harmony. No group has claimed responsibility for the pilgrim attacks. Attacks on Shiite civilians, especially during Shiite religious festivals, have been the hallmark of Sunni extremists, including al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Last year, Shabaniyah celebrations were tarnished when armed clashes broke out between followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and security forces controlled by rival Shiite groups.
Soon afterward, al-Sadr declared a cease-fire, in large part because of the backlash provoked among Shiites by his followers’ role in the Shabaniyah clashes.