BAGHDAD, Jan 5 – A female suicide bomber blew herself up near a Shiite holy shrine in north Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least 35 people including women, children and Iranian pilgrims, a security official said.
The woman carried out the attack at a checkpoint as pilgrims participating in Muharram ceremonies converged on the mausoleum of Imam Musa al-Kadhim in Kadhimiyah neighbourhood, the most important religious site in Baghdad for Shiite Muslims, the official said.
"A woman wearing an explosives belt blew herself up near one of the gates of the shrine," Major General Qassim Atta, Iraq’s spokesman for security operations in Baghdad, told AFP.
Atta said 35 people were killed and 65 injured, most of them Iranian pilgrims and women and children. He described the force of the blast as "very big."
An interior ministry official put the death toll at 40, including 17 Iranian pilgrims, while the US military, citing a casualty report from the prime minister’s national operations centre, said 36 had been killed.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hassan Ghashghavi condemned the attack on the Kadhimiyah shrine as a "terrorist and inhuman act" which "serves the objectives of the enemies of Islam and Muslims."
"Unfortunately foreign occupiers have revealed grounds for intensified insecurity at this recent stage by their wrong acts and approaches," Iran’s state news agency IRNA quoted him as saying.
Police cordoned off the site and workers moved quickly to clean up the bloodstained street that was littered with broken glass and debris from the adjacent shops.
Sunday’s attack came at about 0800 GMT as pilgrims took part in the procession related to the Muharram ceremonies that climax on Ashura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar which this year falls on January 7.
The commemoration mourns the killing of Imam Hussein by armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in the year 680 and Shiite Muslim pilgrims from around the Middle East throng to Iraq to visit the nation’s holy sites during Ashura.
Despite the chaos following Sunday’s bombing, pilgrims continued to march on the shrine in Kadhimiyah, carrying out ritualistic wailing and devotional self-flagellation with chains as they walked.
The Ashura ceremonies across the country have in the past often been the target of attacks by Sunni insurgents.
Sunday’s attack was the deadliest in Iraq since December 11 when at least 55 people were killed and 95 wounded in a suicide bombing at a restaurant outside the northern city of Kirkuk.
The latest attack comes just two days after a male suicide bomber killed at least 23 people and wounded 72 when he blew himself up at a tribal meeting just south of Baghdad.
Suicide bombings in particular are a hallmark of insurgents linked to the Al-Qaeda network.
Attacks of all types have been sharply down across Iraq in recent months, according to US commanders, who recognise however that insurgents are able still to strike and that with provincial elections scheduled for January 31, an increase in violence is likely.
At the height of sectarian violence in 2006 and 2007, bridges across the Tigris that connected the Shiite neighbourhood of Kadamiyah with the Sunni district of Adamiyah were kept closed. With a lowering of communal tensions, the main bridge, known as "the bridge of the imams," has been reopened.
At a ceremony in the Green Zone to commemorate the 88th anniversary of the founding of the Iraqi army, government officials pledged that the nation’s security forces were ready to the defend the country.
"This day shows that we are going in the right direction and we have the ability to take care of our security," Iraqi Defence Minister Abdel Qader Jassem Mohammed told AFP after the event.
"We are ready to take over the security issue at the end of 2011."
Under a deal signed between Baghdad and Washington in November, the United States handed over several security files to Iraq on January 1 and three years from now is due to withdraw entirely from the country it invaded in 2003.