Woman kills 54 pilgrims in suicide attack
In latest Iraqi violence, bomber hid device under her religious clothing
A female suicide bomber killed at least 54 Shia pilgrims marching through Baghdad on their way to the holy city of Karbala yesterday.
It was the latest in a series of explosions in the run-up to next month's Iraqi elections.
The bomber was dressed in the traditional black cloak, or abaya, worn by devout Shia women, which police said allowed her to hide an explosive device. The marchers were en route to Karbala, 100km south of Baghdad, to the Festival of Arbaeen which marks the 40th day since the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein.
More than 100 pilgrims were injured in the mainly Shia district of Shaab, northern Baghdad. A few years ago, Shaab was a dumping ground for bodies of Sunnis killed by Shia death squads, including the corpse of one of Saddam Hussein's abducted lawyers.
Witnesses to yesterday's explosion said that a huge fireball ripped through a crowd of pilgrims, leaving bodies strewn on the ground, their banners drenched in blood and their sandals scattered across the road.
A spate of bombings in the past week has killed scores of people and raised fears that the elections in March could become the focus of terrorists, many linked to al-Qa'ida, intent on disrupting the democratic process.
Sunni extremists have tried for years to ignite civil strife by slaughtering Shias and have attacked the faith's main religious festivals on numerous occasions.
The streets of Baghdad were filled with pilgrims carrying flags and banners proclaiming the martyrdom of Hussein and his father, Imam Ali, while thousands more set up tents by the roadside offering food. There was a heavy police and army presence, with multiple checkpoints manned by soldiers in armoured Humvees supplied by the US military.
Searches for explosives in vehicles, though, were conducted with small, hand-held devices dismissed by many Western experts as all but useless.
Certainly they have done little to prevent the latest wave of terrorist attacks. Last week, three hotels used by Western media and Iraqis were attacked by suicide bombers in trucks carrying explosives.
In at least one case, gunmen fired on the guards of a compound before the driver sped in and detonated his device, killing and wounding dozens. The next day a bomb killed about 20 people outside a government office in Baghdad.
The security forces are prevented in part from using bomb-sniffing dogs because of cultural sensibilities. In the Arab world, dogs are regarded as dirty animals that often cause offence. Iraqi police also lack sufficient female officers to carry out searches on women.
More casualties are expected in the coming week as tens of thousands of pilgrims -- many of them flying in from Iran and the Gulf, despite the threat -- join the march to Karbala.(© The Times, London)