Suicide Bomber Kills 18 In Iraq

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 15, 2008

BAGHDAD, Aug. 14 -- A female suicide bomber detonated explosives among a group of Shiite pilgrims heading to a religious festival in the holy city of Karbala on Thursday, killing at least 18 people and wounding 68, police said.

The attack occurred inside a tent where scores of travelers were resting in the city of Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad, police said. Many of the injured suffered serious burns, and many bodies were so charred that they could not be identified, police said.

"I saw a ball of flame and people flying in the air," said Kamil Kadhim, 29, who was struck by a ball bearing, which bombers typically wear on their explosives belts to generate more injuries. "A minute later people told me that I was bleeding from my back. The police transferred me to Iskandariyah hospital."

Even as overall violence has declined across the country, the attack served as a reminder of Iraq's fragile state. Although no one asserted responsibility for the bombing, it bore the hallmarks of sectarian violence. Sunni extremists have often targeted Shiite pilgrims, sowing sectarian tensions.

The pilgrims were heading to Karbala to attend the Shabaniyah celebration, which commemorates the birth of Shiite Islam's 12th imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, who vanished in the 9th century. Devout Shiites believe the Imam Mahdi will return one day to rid the world of injustice.

Last month, three female suicide bombers attacked Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad in what appeared to be coordinated bombings, killing at least 32 people and injuring more than 100. Iraqi security forces have fortified Karbala, including dispatching hundreds of female officers to search women this weekend, when the festival culminates.

Col. Ali al-Zahawi, Iskandariyah's police chief, said a shortage of female police officers in the town helped the assailant go undetected. He said three policemen became suspicious when they noticed the bomber's thick clothes on a brutally hot evening. When they approached her, she detonated her explosives, killing the three policemen and several pilgrims. A female suicide bomber struck at nearly the same location during last year's pilgrimage, he said.

"The army will replace the police in Iskandariyah after this security violation," said Capt. Muthanna Ahmad, a spokesman for the Babil province police. "The police are not capable to deal with the suicide attacks. They don't have detectors and the necessary equipment for these kind of attacks."

A roadside bomb, also apparently targeting pilgrims, killed three and injured six in central Baghdad on Thursday, police said.

Earlier Thursday, the U.S. Navy said six sailors have been charged with abusing detainees at the U.S.-run Camp Bucca detention center in southern Iraq. In a statement, the Navy said that two detainees had suffered "minor abrasions" and that eight other detainees were confined overnight in a cell sprayed with a "riot control agent and then the ventilation secured."

The alleged incident occurred on May 14 and a probe was launched four days later. The six sailors will face courts-martial, the Navy said.

Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Qais Mizher and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company