BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Bombers killed at least 45 Shi’ite pilgrims in Iraq on Wednesday and also struck police for a third day in a row, in a wave of violence posing a challenge to Iraqi security forces as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw.
More than 100 people have died and hundreds have been wounded since Tuesday in bomb attacks that bear the hallmarks of Sunni Arab insurgents, showing they remain a potent threat even as Washington prepares to remove its final troops this year.
Most of Thursday’s dead were pilgrims pouring into the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala ahead of the culmination of an annual rite which is often attacked by Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
Two car bombs killed 45 people and wounded around 150 near Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) south of Baghdad, on different roads into the city, said Mohammed al-Moussawi, head of the Kerbala provincial council. The explosions struck simultaneously on the outskirts of the city outside a security cordon of checkpoints set up to protect pilgrims, he said.
An official from the Health Ministry in Baghdad put the death toll at 50, and said 203 were wounded, while police and Interior Ministry sources in the capital said they had heard suicide bombers wearing explosive vests were involved.
“Again the infidel terrorists and their criminal assistants have added a new page to their black criminal record,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, said in a statement, pledging to pursue security for Iraqis, and justice.
Pilgrims walk for days from cities across Iraq and also come from neighboring countries to attend rites at Iraqi holy sites.
Earlier, a suicide bomber drove a car into a police headquarters in volatile Diyala province, killing at least three people and wounding around 30, the latest in a series of attacks against the security forces that began on Tuesday.
Around 65 people have died in the three days of assaults on police, including 49 police recruits blown up while queuing for jobs in ex-dictator Saddam Hussein’s hometown Tikrit on Tuesday.
The bomber in Diyala blew up the car at the main gate of the police headquarters in the city of Baquba, 65 km (40 miles) northeast of Baghdad, police said.
Overall violence in Iraq has dropped sharply from the height of sectarian warfare in 2006-07, but Sunni Islamist insurgents still stage lethal attacks, as do groups linked to Saddam Hussein’s outlawed Baath party and armed Shi’ite militia.
Shi’ite pilgrims are often targeted by al Qaeda, which views Shi’ites as apostates.
Attacking the pilgrims also carries a political message that Maliki’s new Shi’ite-led government, reappointed in December after a nine-month impasse following a March election, is incapable of protecting people.
Recent assaults on police and soldiers are likewise aimed at undermining faith in the authorities ahead of the U.S. withdrawal, set to occur by December 31, 2011, analysts and officials say.
“This attack illustrates the lack of security in the country, and we call upon the government, to truly participate in partnership and step up their security efforts, as it is their duty to protect the lives of the citizens,” said former premier Iyad Allawi’s Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc in a statement.
Iraqiya won the most parliamentary seats last March but ended up being a junior partner in Maliki’s government.
“The goal of al Qaeda and other (insurgents) is to send a message that Iraq is a disturbed state and cannot rise ever again,” said Ali al-Moussawi, a media adviser to Maliki.
“But we tell them, they cannot threaten the security of this country and they cannot turn the clock back.”
More attacks in the coming days against Shi’ite pilgrims are likely. Around 120,000 police and troops have been mobilized to protect the hundreds of thousands making a religious trek to Kerbala for Arbain, which marks the end of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Killed in a 7th Century battle at Kerbala, Imam Hussein is a central figure of Shi’ite Islam. The rite culminates on Tuesday.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Michael Christie and Rania El Gamal