Blast Kills at Least 63 Shiite Pilgrims in Iraq

By Amit R. Paley and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 25, 2008; 8:40 AM

BAGHDAD, Feb. 25 -- A suicide bomber killed at least 63 people Sunday in southern Iraq when he attacked a crowd of pilgrims marching to commemorate one of Shiite Islam's holiest days, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

In northern Iraq, Turkish soldiers and Kurdish guerrillas clashed for a fourth straight day, with scores reported killed. The guerrillas, who are seeking greater autonomy for Turkish Kurds, use the area as a base for attacks in Turkey.

The fighting has strained ties between the United States and Iraqi Kurds, who have pleaded with Washington to pressure the Turkish military to end its incursion.

The suicide attack occurred near the town of Iskandariyah at a tent set aside for pilgrims belonging to the movement of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, police said. The Sadrists were among hundreds of thousands of pilgrims marching to the holy city of Karbala for the holiday of Arbaeen on Thursday, the end of a 40-day commemorative period of mourning for Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson who died in battle in 680.

The initial death toll of around 40 was raised to 63 on Monday by an official with the health department in Babil province, according to wire service reports.

Iraqi police said the attack was carried out by the Sunni insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq as part of a campaign meant to provoke the Sadrist movement into ending a cease-fire credited with reducing violence in Iraq, police spokesman Capt. Muthanna Ahmed said.

Pilgrims were eating lunch when a man detonated an explosive vest filled with ball bearings. Ahmed said the blast killed 45 people and wounded 68. U.S. officials put the death toll at 40.

One of the wounded, Ahmed Ali, a 12-year-old from Iskandariyah, was serving tea to pilgrims despite his mother's instructions that he go to school instead. Doctors were forced to amputate his left leg below the knee.

"What is his guilt?" his mother wailed. "He is just a little kid who should have been in school."

Iraqi police said the bomber appeared to have come from a nearby orchard and was able to enter the area because of tensions between Iraqi security forces and the Mahdi Army, the powerful militia of the Sadrist movement. Ahmed, the police spokesman, said the Mahdi Army had forced Iraqi forces to leave the area.

"We always told them that you do not have the capability to secure the area," he said. "But they would simply tell us that we should pack and leave."

In northern Iraq, the fighting has continued to escalate since hundreds of Turkish troops crossed into northern Iraq on Thursday in pursuit of guerrillas from the Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK.

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