BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Two suicide bombers wearing vests full of explosives blew themselves up in separate attacks on Thursday, killing 76 people, including many Iranian pilgrims, in what appeared to be Iraq’s bloodiest day in over a year.
Shortly after the two attacks, the authorities in Baghdad said they had arrested the purported leader of an al Qaeda-affiliated insurgent group, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi. The identity of the man detained was being verified, officials said.
The blasts occurred as apprehension grows in Iraq ahead of a pullout by U.S. troops from city centers in June, a move that officials say insurgents may try to take advantage of.
A year-end election also threatens to stir a resurgence in violence just as the sectarian bloodshed and insurgency triggered by the 2003 U.S.-led invasion appeared to be receding.
One of the attacks occurred near Muqdadiya, 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Baghdad, in the volatile province of Diyala. The suicide bomber targeted a group of Iranian pilgrims in a crowded roadside restaurant at lunchtime.
All but two of the 48 dead were Iranian pilgrims, who have flocked to Iraq in the millions since the fall of Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein to visit Shi’ite Muslim religious sites. Seventy-seven people were wounded, police said.
It was the single deadliest attack since 50 people were killed by a suicide bomber in a restaurant near the northern city of Kirkuk on December 11 last year.
“Words can’t express it. It is a dirty, cowardly terrorist act,” said Abdulnasir al-Muntasirbillah, who marked his first day in office as Diyala governor on Thursday.
The other blast took place in central Baghdad as a group of Iraqi national police were distributing relief supplies to families driven from their homes at the height of the violence.
Twenty-eight people died, and 50 were wounded, police said. At least five children and two Red Crescent workers were among the dead. Some witnesses said the bomber was a woman.
Red Crescent food parcels, police helmets and packets of biscuits were strewn in the blood pooled on the pavement, while a woman in a black robe wailed and beat her thighs in anguish.
“It is a suicide bomber. Obviously that has the fingerprints of al Qaeda,” said Baghdad security spokesman Major-General Qassim Moussawi.
Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said al Qaeda was trying to trigger broader conflict by targeting the most vulnerable.
“They don’t differentiate between people. Their ideology is killing,” Dabbagh told the U.S.-funded al-Hurra TV station.
Violence in Iraq has fallen sharply over the past year, but insurgents such as Sunni Islamist al Qaeda still carry out attacks.
Yet, while the bombings remain routine, it has been a while since so many people were killed on a single day.
Last June 17, a truck bomb in Baghdad killed 63, two bombs on March 6, 2008, killed 68, also in Baghdad, and female suicide bombers killed 99 in a Baghdad pet market on February 1, 2008.
Shortly after Thursday’s bombings, Moussawi’s office said that Baghdadi had been arrested in east Baghdad.
Baghdadi is said to be the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, close to al Qaeda’s main organization in Iraq, which is led by Abu Ayyub al-Masri, also known as Abu Hamza al-Muhajir.
“This would be a significant capture if the report is true,” Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said in Washington.
Dabbagh said authorities were trying to verify the identify of the man, also called Ahmed Abid Ahmed Khamis al-Majmai.
“We need time to confirm that he is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi but the initial information affirms that he is Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as he claims,” Dabbagh said.
Security experts have speculated that Baghdadi was a character invented by extremists in order to put an Iraqi face to a group criticised for being composed of foreign fighters.
But Whitman said the U.S. military did believe there was a single al Qaeda leader with that name.
Some Iraqis expect violence to increase in Iraq as rival political and armed groups position themselves ahead of a national election due to take place at the end of the year.
Iraqi officials say al Qaeda and others are also likely to try to test Iraqi security forces as U.S. troops prepare to pull out of cities ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.
Additional reporting by Waleed Ibrahim and Wathiq Ibrahim in Baghdad and Andrew Gray in Washington; Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Louise Ireland