BAGHDAD (AP) — Authorities announced the arrest Friday of several suspects in the deadly suicide bombings outside a holy Shiite city that have provoked criticism of the security forces for not protecting the pilgrims flocking to the shrines.
Karbala provincial councilman Shadhan al-Aboudi said Iraqi security forces raided a house in the region’s southern outskirts, not far from where 56 people were killed Thursday in a triple suicide bombing at highway checkpoints. Al-Aboudi said a group of people were arrested in the raid, but he did not know exactly how many.
A Karbala police officer confirmed the arrest, adding that a car bomb was also seized in an orchard near the house. He declined to provide further details and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the ongoing investigation.
An hour earlier, a top representative of the revered cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani criticized security forces during Friday prayers in Karbala, saying that terrorists seem to remain one step ahead of the government’s efforts to protect Iraq.
“To our brothers in the security forces we say: We really appreciate your efforts in protecting pilgrims, but you need to develop your tactics as the terrorists do,” said Sheik Abdul-Mahdi al-Karbalaie. “It is true that there are checkpoints, but that’s not enough to stop such criminal acts against millions of pilgrims.”
He called on the government to better fund and train Iraqi soldiers and police, and said intelligence forces in particular need to be bolstered to combat extremists.
Millions of Shiite pilgrims are converging this weekend on Karbala, located 55 miles (90 kilometers) south of Baghdad, for rituals marking the 7th century death of Imam Hussein. He was a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and was slain by Muslim rivals near Karbala.
Iraqi police and soldiers lined main Baghdad roads to watch over thousands of pilgrims headed on foot to the holy city.
No group so far has claimed responsibility for the bombings, but suicide attacks are the trademark of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group believed made up mostly of Sunni religious extremists.
In a statement, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani condemned the Karbala bombings that he said aimed “at provoking sedition and spreading fear and turmoil.”