Bombers target Shiite pilgrims
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BAGHDAD -- Suicide bombers launched a series of deadly assaults Thursday against pilgrims marching toward a shrine sacred to Shiite Muslims, police said, and dozens were killed in a third consecutive day of attacks against an array of targets.
The annual pilgrimage, which was banned under Saddam Hussein, is expected to draw as many as 10 million people this year to the city of Karbala over 10 days. It has long been a target of sectarian violence. Until this week, the holiday had been free of major bloodshed, and Iraqi security forces had claimed progress in their ability to protect the populace from violent extremist groups.
That progress evaporated on Thursday as three car bombs along the roads leading to Karbala, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, killed at least 52 people and wounded 150, according to an official with the Iraqi police.
The three cars were parked near police checkpoints and exploded at roughly the same time, despite heightened security along the route. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, which resembled previous assaults attributed to al-Qaida in Mesopotamia or an affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq.
"The attacks were expected, because this is the biggest annual commemoration with the highest number of pilgrims," said Hussein Sadhan, a member of Karbala's provincial council. "We are expecting more attacks by al-Qaida because the pilgrims are open and easy to target, while al-Qaida is invisible."
In Diyala province, a roadside bomb killed one marcher and injured three, and another bomb in Dora killed one and injured nine.
Hakim al-Zamili, a member of Parliament allied with the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, criticized the country's security forces. "The checkpoints are not really checking in a precise way," he said. "After seven years the same attacks and breaches happen again and again, and they don't learn their lessons from it."
Mr. Zamili reiterated statements offering the security forces help from the armed wing of Mr. Sadr's supporters. But he added that "there is sensitivity in this matter," alluding to the prior deadly clashes between Mr. Sadr's Mahdi army and both Americans and other Iraqis.
"Our leader Muqtada said before on many occasions that we are ready to help in protecting the pilgrims and the holy shrines at no charge," Mr. Zamili said, "but they say that we are a militia and we are irregulars. But the truth is we are not."
The head of Karbala's provincial council, Muhammad al-Mosawi, said it was unfair to blame the security forces, adding that he thought al-Qaida and former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party were behind the attacks on the pilgrimage. The police and army, he said, "have done a great job with providing security and we can't blame them because no power in the world could secure millions of pilgrims from such attacks.
Overall, violence in Iraq is down from previous years, but this week there have been three consecutive days of major attacks on both Iraq security forces and Shiite pilgrims, raising fears that extremist groups were regaining some of the deadly capabilities that terrorized the country in 2006 and 2007.
The explosions did not deter marchers, who have continued the pilgrimage in the face of threats and attacks. The pilgrimage is to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and a central figure in Shiite Islam.
Also in Iraq on Thursday, a suicide car bomb exploded outside the police headquarters in Baquba killing three.
First Published January 21, 2011 12:00 am