REPORTING FROM BAGHDAD AND CAIRO -- A suicide bomber killed at least 55 Shiite Muslim pilgrims Saturday in southern Iraq in the latest violence that has shaken the nation since U.S. forces withdrew in December.
The attack, which wounded more than 100 people, targeted pilgrims heading to a Shiite mosque between Zubair and Basra. An official said the lone bomber carried fake identification and wore a policeman’s uniform, which allowed him to penetrate the crowd without raising suspicion near a checkpoint.
"A man dressed like a policeman detonated himself amid the gathering of people,” Hashim Luaibi, spokesman for the Basra provincial council, said in a telephone interview.
Another report suggested a policeman was attempting to stop an assailant. Ali Ghanim Maliki, chief of security for the Basra council, told Sumeria TV: "A man was carrying a box pretending he was distributing food to pilgrims. A police officer suspected him and tried to catch him, but the man detonated himself."
Other reports said the blast came from a roadside bomb.
Many Iraqis are worried the country will return to the sectarian violence that swept cities and villages and nearly sparked civil war from 2005 to 2007. Tensions have risen since the departure of U.S. troops and an ensuing political crisis over efforts by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki to consolidate Shiite power over government ministries, including state security services.
The pilgrims Saturday were commemorating the end of the 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The Khotwa mosque outside Zubair is a destination for thousands of worshipers who cannot endure the longer journey to the holy city of Karbala, where the imam is buried.
The Associated Press quoted Majid Hussein, one of the pilgrims heading toward the shrine, as saying: "I saw several dead bodies and wounded people, including children on the ground asking for help. There were also some baby strollers left at the blast site."
The explosion was part of a series of recent Al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent attacks against Shiite worshipers in efforts to destabilize the government. Bombings and ambushes on pilgrims -– despite increased security -- have become common during the annual mourning period known as Arbaeen. In early December, nearly two dozen Iraqis were killed in coordinated assaults on Shiite processions wending toward Karbala.
The deadliest attacks on pilgrims occurred on Jan. 5 when at least 71 worshipers were killed in Baghdad and Nasiriya.
Luaibi said the mosque outside Zubair has also become accustomed to attacks.
“Tens of thousands of people used to visit this shrine,” he said."They were targeted several times during past years. Two days go, the security forces defused four [bombs] on that road.”
-- Raheem Salman and Jeffrey Fleishman
Photo: Iraqi Shiite worshipers beat their chests as part of a religious ceremony at a shrine in Karbala, in southern Iraq. Credit: EPA/STR