Suicide bomber kills 54 in Iraq

BAGHDAD: A female suicide bomber walking among Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad detonated an explosives belt today, killing at least 54 people and wounding more than 117, officials said.

The bombing was the first major strike this year against pilgrims making their way to the southern city of Karbala to mark a Shiite holy day. It came as security official warned of a possible increase in attacks by insurgents using new tactics to bypass bomb-detection methods.

The bombing raises fears of an escalation of attacks as hundreds of thousands of

Shiites head by Friday to the southern holy city of Karbala to mark the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite figure.

The bomber hid the explosives underneath an abaya - a black cloak worn from head to toe by women - as she joined a group of pilgrims on the outskirts of Baghdad’s Shiite-dominated neighborhood of Shaab, said Maj Gen Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad’s top military spokesman. The bomber set off the blast as she lined up with other women to be searched by female security guards at a security checkpoint just inside a rest tent, al-Moussawi said.

After clearing the security check, the women pilgrims were served water and sherbet, a police official said. Another police official said 54 were killed and 117 were wounded. A hospital official also confirmed the casualties. All the officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the media. Witnesses described a chaotic scene in the minutes following the blast.

Raheem Kadhom, 35, was standing about 138 metres away when he says a huge fireball erupted among the pilgrims.

Pilgrims were “on the ground, covered in blood and crying for help,” he said. “Banners were all over the ground and covered in blood.” The blast was so powerful it knocked some out of their slippers and shoes, which were scattered across the ground, Khadhom said.

Many ran to the aid of the pilgrims. Some put the wounded in cars, taking them to hospitals rather than wait from ambulances, Kadhom said.

Despite an overall decline in violence in Iraq, al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists have routinely targeted pilgrims in an attempt to stoke sectarian strife and weaken the Shiite-dominated government.

The vast numbers of pilgrims and the distances many of them must travel at predictable times of the year make it all but impossible to guarantee their safety against extremist groups. The pilgrims targeted today were walking from the northeast Diyala province and other areas north of Baghdad, police said.

Security forces were put on alert shortly after the attack, al-Moussawi said. “We informed all checkpoints to be careful and to intensify the search procedures,” he said.