BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Two car bombs exploded near the holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala in southern Iraq on Monday, killing 19 mainly Shi’ite pilgrims and wounding 54, an Iraqi official said.
In a separate incident in the capital Baghdad, a suicide bomber killed at least four people on Monday in an attack on the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya news channel, security officials said.
The car bombs targeted Shi’ite pilgrims visiting Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad, before the anniversary of Imam Mohammed al-Mehdi’s birthday for which several hundred thousand people are expected this week.
The blasts took place about 20 km south of Kerbala on the road from Najaf, also a Shi’ite holy city, Kerbala governor Amal al-Din al-Hir told reporters, correcting another official who had earlier put the death toll at 20.
The birthday is one of several annual pilgrimages that have evolved into shows of strength for Iraq’s majority Shi’ite Muslim community since the fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, who curbed such rites.
Overall violence has dropped significantly in Iraq since the height of sectarian warfare in 2006-07 but bombings and shootings are still occur regularly.
Earlier this month determined Shi’ite pilgrims defied suicide and roadside bombs to participate in an annual rite at the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine in Baghdad.
Attacks killed more than 40 pilgrims and wounded hundreds of others despite the presence of 200,000 troops and police on the streets of the Iraqi capital. Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites commemorated the death of the mediaeval Shi’ite holy man.
In Baghdad a suicide bomber blew up a mini-van he was driving close to the entrance of Arabiya’s office in the Harithiya district, killing a cleaner and three guards, city security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi said. Ten people were wounded.
Dubai-based Arabiya TV also reported four people were killed. An Interior Ministry source put the death toll higher at six people and said about 20 others were wounded.
Former deputy prime minister Salam al-Zobai, a member of the cross-sectarian Iraqiya bloc in parliament, was among the wounded along with five of his security guards, his spokesman said. Zobai’s house was near the blast.
The attack occurred a few weeks after Iraqi security forces warned that a number of media including foreign outlets such as Arabiya could be targeted by the Sunni al Qaeda insurgency.
“Yes, there were threats from al Qaeda against the media two months ago. That’s why we allocated a police patrol in each media location ... The threats still exist,” Moussawi said. “Al-Qaeda’s fingerprints are clear in this suicide explosion.”
Major General Jihad al-Jabiri, head of the ministry’s ordnance department, told Arabiya TV that the car had been packed with 128 kg (280 pounds) of ammonium nitrate. The blast left a crater 3.5 meters (7.7 feet) wide and 1.2 meters (2.6 feet) deep, he said.
Tensions have been rising since a March 7 parliamentary election that produced no clear winner.
Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish political factions have been jockeying for position in a coalition government and insurgents appear to be trying to take advantage of the political vacuum as the United States prepares to end combat operations formally by August 31.
Additional reporting by Suadad al-Salhy and Reuters TV, writing by Ulf Laessing; editing by David Stamp