BAGHDAD – At least 40 Shiite pilgrims, many of them women and children, were killed Friday by a female suicide bomber south of Baghdad in the deadliest attack so far this year, Iraqi officials say.
At least 60 more were injured in the attack near Iskanderiya, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, at a stop on the pilgrimage route to Karbala, where millions of Shiites annually converge to mark the death of Imam Hussein.
Iraqi officials last month arrested a woman they say confessed to recruiting more than 28 women to blow themselves up. Samira Jassim, in a videotaped confession to interrogators, described befriending women estranged from their families or in distress and persuading them to become suicide bombers.
Ms. Jassim told The Associated Press that she was part of a plot in which young women were raped and then she would try to persuade the victims to become suicide bombers as their only escape from the shame and to reclaim their honor.
Friday’s bomber was believed to have hidden explosives under her abaya – the voluminous black cloak worn by almost all the women making the pilgrimage. She detonated her bomb at one of the hundreds of rest-stop tents set up along the road to Karbala. The casualty toll was expected to rise with many of the injured critically wounded.
Iraqi state media has said six million pilgrims are converging on the holy city 50 miles south of Baghdad. They include Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, in Iraq on a state visit. The commemoration – Arbaeen – marks 40 days of mourning for the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein, killed in battle in 680.
The Iraqi government has launched a massive security operation to keep the pilgrims safe in Karbala and along the roads north and south into the city. With improved security, hundreds of thousands have set off on foot for the first time in several years.
On the major highway interchange south of Baghdad Thursday, traffic was down to one lane on the divided highway as pilgrims – dressed in black and waving flags with Imam Hussein’s image – choked the roads for miles. Armored vehicles stood watch on the overpass but the highway itself was guarded by just a few Iraqi soldiers with rifles.
“There are just two of us, what can we do?” said one of the soldiers near a checkpoint.
Despite the extensive security operation, which includes US forces at a normally discrete distance, searching everyone for suicide bombs in the huge crowds would be logistically difficult, if not impossible.
This is the third attack on the pilgrims in the last three days. On Thursday, a suicide bomber in a vest packed with nails detonated just several hundred yards from the Imam Hussein shrine, killing at least eight pilgrims and wounding dozens more.
Iraq has been emerging from three years of sectarian bloodshed and a civil war sparked by the 2006 bombing in Samara, one of the holiest Shiite shrines, by suspected Sunni extremists. The United Nations’ envoy to Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, described the attacks against pilgrims this week as designed to reignite sectarian tension.