Car bombs targeting religious processions in Iraq’s capital killed at least 26 people on Saturday on the last day of a Shiite pilgrimage already hit three times in some of the deadliest violence since US troops withdrew, police said.
The blasts were the latest in a fierce wave of terror attacks on the annual pilgrimage that sees hundreds of thousands visit the shrine to an 8th-century Shiite imam in northern Baghdad.
On Wednesday, 72 people died in nearly two dozen coordinated bombings targeting pilgrims across the country. Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq on Saturday claimed responsibility for that attack.
Al-Qaeda has been unleashing attacks every few weeks, trying to weaken the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and spark another round of the sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war only a few years ago. While fighting between Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities has all but died out in recent years, al-Maliki’s government has been plagued by sectarian tension since before the last US troops withdrew six months ago.
The first car bomb exploded just after noon near a throng of pilgrims streaming through the Shiite neighborhood of Shula in the north of the city, heading toward the shrine to Imam Moussa al-Kadhim. At least 14 people including two policemen were killed in the blast and 46 others were wounded, police said.
The bomb was hidden in a taxi parked among a group of other taxis waiting along the procession route to take pilgrims back to their home cities once Saturday’s ceremonies were over, the police official said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information. A hospital worker confirmed the death toll, also speaking on condition of anonymity for the same reason.
An hour later, a second car exploded in Kadimiyah neighborhood, about 5km from the mosque that contains the shrine where al-Kadhim is said to be buried. The same police official said that 12 people were killed and 26 were wounded when a parked car exploded as the crowds passed by.
The Kadimiyah attack hit inside a tight ring of security that authorities had thrown up around the shrine’s surrounding neighborhood after Wednesday’s multiple bombings. Police and soldiers had been searching vehicles and people at checkpoints leading into Kadimiyah for days.
Some said security forces had not done enough, especially for the masses of pilgrims on roads leading into Kadimiyah.
“There is no real security, no real searches,” said Mohamed Ali, who witnessed the first bombing in Shula, where authorities were towing away the burned remains of a car. “Today is an exceptional day — all security forces must be on high alert.”
Despite the latest violence, Saturday’s commemorations continued for al-Kadhim, a revered imam who was the Prophet Mohammed’s great-grandson.
Massive crowds carried symbolic coffins through the streets and pilgrims beat their chests as a sign of mourning as they streamed through Baghdad toward the mosque’s two golden domes. On the sidelines, people used hoses to spray water on the crowds to relieve scorching summer heat that reached 47°C.
“The terrorists will not discourage us,” vowed a song played over the mosque loudspeakers, promising to keep the centuries-old pilgrimage alive “even if they cut off our bodies into pieces.”