A female suicide bomber walked into a tent full of Shiite pilgrims on Monday, killing at least 46 people and wounding another 100 in the latest attack in the run-up to Iraqi elections next month.
“It is a political matter – it is part of the elections campaign,” said Captain Sameer, an Iraqi Army officer near the scene. “An explosion like this that takes place targeting Shiites on a sacred religious rite – the obvious thing to do is to blame Sunnis and this would of course affect their standing in the elections.”
Iraqi security officials said the attack was carried out on the northeastern outskirts of Baghdad where the roads were filled with thousands of pilgrims walking to Karbala. Women and children were among the casualties.
Sameer, reached by phone, said the bomber was believed to be a woman dressed in an abaya – the traditional black cloak – carrying a bag who walked into one of the roadside tents set up to offer food and rest to the pilgrims.
The target was believed to be the pilgrimage tent in the Boub al-Sham neighborhood. The tent was also near the headquarters of a National Police unit known as The Wolf Brigade. The Wolf Brigade, since reformed, was identified during Iraq’s sectarian war with Shiite death squads
The Baghdad Operations Command gave a slightly different account of the attack, saying in a statement that the bomber detonated the explosive belt while passing through a security check at the tent. The statement said three female searchers were among the dead. The statement listed the death toll as 38 dead and 80 wounded.
Attacks had been expected along the hundreds of miles of the pilgrimage route, which is almost impossible to fully secure.
In the past few days, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have set out by foot from all parts of Iraq for the holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad. The pilgrimage commemorates Arbaeen – the end of 40 days of mourning after the death of Imam Hussein, who was killed in battle 13 centuries ago.
The betrayal and death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson is one of the defining elements in the Shiite identity. The public procession was banned during Saddam Hussein’s regime. Part of the ceremonies include men and boys beating themselves with chains and cutting themselves with knives to signify their remorse.
Sameer said there were female searchers along the route but widely spaced between checkpoints, making it difficult to prevent a suicide bomber from joining the procession.
“I saw the smoldering remains of the tent,” said Sameer, who did not want his last name to be used. “I saw bits and pieces of humanity scattered – it was a massacre. This was a very painful day.”
The streets emptied after the bombing. Many of the pilgrims say they set off expecting attacks. Iraqis have blamed a recent wave of major suicide bombings on political battles ahead of parliamentary elections in March
Suicide attacks a week ago hit three major hotels in Baghdad and the Interior Ministry’s forensics department a day later.
Al Qaeda in Iraq has taken responsibility for those blasts, as well as for coordinated suicide bombings targeting government ministries since August.
Sahar Issa contributed to this report.