TIKRIT, Iraq (Reuters) - At least 19 people were killed in bomb attacks targeting Iraqi police and pilgrims on Wednesday, police and medical sources said, just before the end of a Shi‘ite Muslim religious festival.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks, which coincided with the holy ritual of Ashura, when Shi‘ites commemorate Imam Hussein who died more than 1,000 years ago. The 10-day ritual ends on Thursday.
Shi‘ites are considered apostates by hardline Sunni Islamist insurgents who have been regaining momentum in Iraq this year.
Security personnel are also a prime target for Sunni militants linked with al Qaeda, which seeks to destabilize Iraq’s Shi‘ite-led government and foment intercommunal conflict.
In the deadliest attack, 10 people were killed when a suicide bomber drove a truck packed with explosives into a police checkpoint in the town of al-Alam near Tikrit, police said.
Sunni Islamist and other insurgents have a foothold in Tikrit.
“A truck driver reached the checkpoint and when asked by police to pull over, a powerful blast happened, killing two policemen and eight innocent passers-by,” said police colonel Khalid Mahdi.
Near the city of Baquba, three roadside bombs exploded near a group of Shi‘ite pilgrims commemorating Ashura, killing nine, medics and police sources said.
Violence began to ease after al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate was forced underground in 2007, but it is rising again, with more than 7,500 civilians killed so far this year, according to monitoring group Iraq Body Count.
Iraqi officials blame the bloodshed on al Qaeda and the civil war in neighboring Syria, which has drawn hardline Sunni Islamists from across the region and beyond into battle against President Bashar al-Assad, who is an ally of Shi‘ite Iran.
Al Qaeda’s Iraqi wing earlier this year joined forces with its Syrian counterpart to form the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has claimed responsibility for attacks on both sides of the border.
Reporting by Ghazwan Hassan in Tikrit and a Reuters reporter in Baquba; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed, editing by Elizabeth Piper