BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber killed at least 30 Iraqi Shi’ite pilgrims on Wednesday en route to a shrine and wounded 75, while a roadside bomb killed another six despite heavy security during a religious rite, security sources said.
The suicide bombing took place just short of a bridge where 1,000 Shi’ite pilgrims died in a stampede during the same festival in 2005 after hearing rumors of a bomb.
The attacker was wearing a belt full of explosives, a police source said. Suicide bombings are often a hallmark of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, which regards Shi’ite Muslims as apostates.
The roadside bomb in the western district of Harithiya, a mainly Sunni area that the Shi’ite pilgrims walk through to get to the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine, killed six and wounded 30, an Interior Ministry source said.
Protecting the festival is a key test for the Iraqi security forces during a political vacuum left by an election in March that produced no outright winner and as yet no new government, and ahead of the end of U.S. combat operations in August.
Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites have been streaming through the streets of Baghdad to commemorate the death of a medieval Shi’ite holy man. The festival peaks on Thursday.
Security officials assigned 200,000 police and soldiers to protect the pilgrims as they headed to the shrine in northern Baghdad. They imposed a city-wide ban on motorcycles and bicycles to help prevent attacks.
Iraqi military helicopters circled over the golden-domed shrine and snipers perched on nearby rooftops, using binoculars to scan the crowds below for signs of trouble.
In addition to the suicide bombing near the bridge, and the roadside bomb in Harithiya, bombs in east, southwest and southeast Baghdad killed two more people and wounded 33.
On Tuesday, mortar rounds and bombs killed six pilgrims.
Last year, the pilgrimage provided the first big test for Iraqi police and soldiers after U.S. troops withdrew from urban centers at the end of June. The U.S. military will end combat operations this August 31 ahead of a full withdrawal next year.
“We expect the terrorist groups to launch terrorist attacks against pilgrims during the coming hours, but our contingency plans will foil their vicious acts,” Major General Ahmed al-Saedi, commander of the Iraqi 6th Army Division in charge of the Kadhimiya district, said earlier in the day.
Barricades kept vehicles away from the shrine and security forces used police and military vehicles to transport pilgrims.
The Shi’ite pilgrims appeared undeterred.
“I’m a Shi’ite and I have to stay faithful to my sect and imams,” said Layla Abbas, 63, who was pushed in a wheelchair by her daughter toward the shrine. “I’m disabled yes, but my loyalty to Shi’ite imams is not.”
Overall violence has fallen sharply, but major bombings, often claimed by al Qaeda in Iraq, remain common.
Sectarian tensions have been running high since the inconclusive March 7 parliamentary election that Iraqis hoped would bring stable government to their nation more than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Kadhim Chillab, 54, had politics on his mind as he walked to the shrine in the heat, covering his head with a handkerchief.
“I’m walking to Imam Kadhim to show my loyalty as a Shi’ite and on this occasion I also ask God to enlighten politicians’ minds to end our suffering and form the government,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, Waleed Ibrahim and Reuters Television, writing by Jim Loney and Michael Christie; editing by Matthew Jones