REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD -- A series of powerful explosions ripped through processions of pilgrims celebrating a major Shiite Muslim religious holiday Monday, threatening to inflame sectarian tensions as U.S. troops stream out of the country ahead of a Dec. 31 deadline.
Nearly two dozen Iraqis were killed and more than 75 wounded in at least seven attacks on pilgrims headed to or from the Shiite holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq. The processions are assaulted almost every year during Ashura, which commemorates the death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein.
Iraqi security forces did not immediately attribute responsibility for the attacks, but police in past years have blamed Al Qaeda militants or Baath Party insurgents attempting to stoke ethnic and religious animosities. Millions of Shiites make the pilgrimage every year, many of them from neighboring Iran.
The bombings came during a period of heightened security as the last several thousand American troops in Iraq made preparations to leave. U.S. forces are withdrawing under a security agreement with Iraq signed in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration and carried out by the Obama administration.
President Obama said in October that American forces would be back home by Christmas. A ceremony commemorating the last U.S. troops to leave Baghdad is tentatively scheduled for mid-December.
Over the weekend, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad cited increased security and kidnapping threats as it restricted the movements of embassy staffers inside the secure Green Zone in central Baghdad. In a statement, the embassy said employees must be accompanied by guards when visiting government offices, shops or restaurants in the zone.
The embassy announcement came less than a week after a suicide bomber penetrated the zone's security checkpoints and detonated a bomb just outside the Iraqi parliament. Government officials said the attack was aimed at either Prime Minister Nouri Maliki or the speaker of parliament.
In northern Baghdad on Monday, a roadside bomb killed eight pilgrims, including a 3-year-old girl, and wounded 21. Security forces said they defused another bomb set to explode nearby.
Three of the explosions killed pilgrims around the city of Hillah, about 60 miles south of Baghdad. In one incident, attackers hurled two hand grenades into a procession, killing one pilgrim and wounding five others.
Mohammed Shimmeri, a tribal sheik in Hillah, said in a telephone interview that one attack killed pilgrims gathering for food that is customarily offered to those making the trip to Karbala.
"The flesh of the people mixed with the meat of the pilgrims' food," he said. "Tea prepared for them was spilled on the ground. Tents built for the rest of the pilgrims were destroyed."
-- Raheem Salman and David Zucchino
Photo: Shiite pilgrims take part Monday in preparation for the Ashura ceremony in Karbala, Iraq. Credit: Mushtaq Muhammad / Reuters