Baghdad– A female suicide bomber laden with explosives blew herself up on Monday among Shia pilgrims on the outskirts of the Iraqi capital, killing at least 54 people, security officials said.
Iraq is trying to leave years of bombings, killings and sectarian slaughter behind as it moves to cement security gains made in the last two years and revamp an oil sector that gives Iraq nearly all of its revenues.
The bombing took place as thousands of Shia Muslims flooded the streets for the start of an arduous trek to the southern city of Kerbala, 80 km southwest of Baghdad, for the religious rite of Arbain.
An Interior Ministry source and a police official said 54 people had been killed and 106 wounded in the attack on a tent where pilgrims are given food and drink.
"People were serving food to the pilgrims. A woman wrapped in an explosives belt went inside the tent and killed and wounded (many people) and children," said pilgrim Sahib, who was near the tent.
The office of Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi said that the bombing occurred in a crowd and that 19 people were killed, with 80 wounded.
The attack took place as the nation geared up for a March election when Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is expected to run on improved security and trumpet oil deals that may vault Iraq into the world’s top three crude exporters, from 11th currently.
More violence is likely during the Arbain religious period and before the election as suspected Sunni Islamist groups try to undermine Maliki’s Shia-led government.
Millions of Shias from Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and other nations have defied the threat of suicide bombings since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled the Sunni-led government of Saddam Hussein to visit Iraq’s Shia holy sites.
Arbain marks 40 days of mourning for Hussein, the Prophet Mohammad’s grandson, who died in a 7th Century battle at Kerbala. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, beating their heads and chests in ritual mourning, pour into the city for the rite.
Many walk from hundreds of kilometers away. Arbain was once suppressed like other Shia gatherings under Saddam.
Tens of thousands of troops and police have been deployed to protect pilgrims and also around the revered Imam Hussein shrine in Kerbala. But suspected Sunni Islamist extremists, who view Shia Muslims as apostates, still manage to get through.
Today’s attack is the deadliest in 2010. Last month, 155 people were killed when a twin car bombs targeted the Justice Ministry and the Baghdad provincial government building.