A bomb tore through a procession of Shiite pilgrims heading toward a largely Sunni town in southern Iraq on Saturday, killing at least 53 people in the latest sign of a power struggle between rival Muslim sects that has escalated since the US military withdrawal.
Fears of more bloodshed have risen in recent weeks, with the US no longer enjoying the leverage it once had to encourage the two sides to work together to rein in extremists. Most of the latest attacks appear to be aimed at Iraq’s majority Shiites, suggesting Sunni insurgents seeking to undermine the Shiite-dominated government are to blame.
Saturday’s blast happened on the last of the 40 days of Arbaeen, when hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims travel to the Iraqi city of Karbala and other holy sites.
The end of Arbaeen is one of the most sacred times for Shiites and public processions to commemorate it were banned under former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein.
The blast occurred near the town of Zubair as pilgrims marched from the nearby port city of Basra toward the Imam Ali shrine on the outskirts of the town, said Ayad al-Emarah, a spokesman for the governor of Basra Province.
The shrine is an enclave within an enclave — a Shiite site on the edge of a predominantly Sunni town in an otherwise mostly Shiite province.
There were conflicting reports of what caused the blast, with some officials saying a roadside bomb was to blame.
However, witnesses at the scene described the perpetrator as a suicide bomber disguised as a volunteer handing out juice and food to pilgrims. Ali Ghanim al-Maliki, the head of the Basra provincial council, corroborated that account in an interview with Iraqiya state television.
Arbaeen marks the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite figure who was the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.
Pilgrims who cannot make it to Imam Hussein’s grave in the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, often journey to other sacred sites such as the shrine near Zubair.
“I saw several dead bodies and wounded people, including children on the ground asking for help. There were also some baby strollers left behind at the blast site,” said Majid Hussein, a government employee, who was one of the pilgrims heading to the shrine.
At least 53 people were killed and more than 130 wounded in the blast, said Riyadh Abdul-Amir, the head of Basra Health Directorate.
The US embassy strongly condemned the attack, saying such acts of violence “tear at the fabric of Iraqi unity.”
Many pilgrims were undeterred and continued on the bloodstained road despite the explosion. Shoes and slippers, as well as the remains of abayas, the long black cloaks most women wear in public, littered the side of the road.
The attack bore the hallmarks of Sunni extremists, who believe Shiites are not true Muslims. It was the latest in a series of deadly strikes during this year’s Arbaeen.
More than 145 people have been killed in attacks seen to be aimed at Shiites since the start of the year.
The largest of the Arbaeen attacks — a wave of apparently coordinated bombings in Baghdad and outside the southern city of Nasiriyah — killed at least 78 people on Jan. 5. It was the deadliest strike in Iraq in more than a year.
So far there has been little sign of the revenge attacks by Shiite militias that brought the country to the edge of civil war in 2006.