By Raheem Salman and Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times –
BAGHDAD, Iraq — A bomb killed at least 53 Shiite Muslim pilgrims in southern Iraq on Saturday, an attack certain to inflame sectarian tensions in a country shaken by escalating violence since U.S. forces withdrew in December.
The blast, which wounded more than 130 people, targeted pilgrims heading toward a Shiite mosque between the cities of Zubayr and Basra. There were conflicting reports on the explosion. One official blamed a lone attacker holding fake identification and wearing a uniform.
“A man dressed like a policeman detonated himself amid the gathering,” Hashim Luaibi, spokesman of the Basra provincial council, said in a telephone interview.
Another version suggested that a policeman was trying to stop an assailant. Ali Ghanim Maliki, chief of security for the Basra council, told Alsumaria TV: “A man was carrying a box pretending he was distributing food to pilgrims. A police officer suspected him and tried to catch him, but the man detonated himself.”
Many Iraqis are worried the country will return to the sectarian bloodletting that swept cities and villages and nearly sparked civil war between 2005 and 2007. Tensions have risen since the departure of U.S. troops and an ensuing political crisis over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s plans to consolidate Shiite power over government ministries, including state security services.
The pilgrims Saturday were commemorating the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The Khotwa mosque outside Zubayr is a destination for many worshipers who cannot endure the longer journey to the holy city of Karbala, where the imam is buried.
The Associated Press quoted Majid Hussein, one of the pilgrims heading toward the shrine, as saying: “I saw several dead bodies and wounded people, including children on the ground asking for help. There were also some baby strollers left at the blast site.”
The bombing was part of a series of what are widely believed to be Sunni insurgent attacks against Shiite worshipers in an effort to destabilize the government. Explosions and ambushes on pilgrims — despite increased security — have become common during the annual 40-day mourning period known as Arbaeen.
In early December, nearly two dozen Iraqis were killed in coordinated assaults on Shiite processions wending toward Karbala. The deadliest attacks on pilgrims occurred Jan. 5, when 71 worshipers were killed in Baghdad and Nasiriya.
Luaibi said the mosque outside Zubayr is known to draw attacks.
“Tens of thousands of people used to visit this shrine,” he said. “They were targeted several times during past years. Two days ago, the security forces defused four (bombs) on that road.”