Female suicide bomber kills at least 41 in attack on Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

BAGHDAD -- A female suicide bomber targeting Shiite Muslim pilgrims killed at least 41 people and wounded scores more Monday in northern Baghdad, Iraqi authorities said.

The bomber detonated explosives in a crowded tented area where women were being searched along a main road in Bab al-Sham, Iraqi officials said. Among those killed were three women who were tasked with searching female pilgrims. More than 100 people were wounded in the explosion.

The bombing was the deadliest in months carried out by a suicide bomber on foot, and it suggested that Sunni Muslim insurgents are broadening their targets in an effort to wreak havoc in the run-up to the March 7 parliamentary elections. Most suicide bombings in Iraq have been attributed to the group al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Attacks on Shiite pilgrims and shrines have in the past stoked sectarian violence -- a goal of Sunni insurgents that has proved largely illusive in the past couple of years. Most of the large attacks carried out in recent months have targeted Iraqi government buildings and other landmark sites in the capital.

Attacks against devout Shiites and a prominent Shiite shrine sparked a cycle of sectarian retaliation in 2006 and 2007, prompting Shiite militias to strike back at Sunnis.

Monday's bombing followed powerful car bombs in the capital last week that targeted prominent hotels and a police building. Those attacks killed dozens of people.

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walk to the southern city of Karbala at this time of year to mark the end of the 40-day period of mourning that commemorates the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. The commemoration continues through Thursday.

"This large number of people who are walking to Karbala are an easy target for the attackers," said Shiite lawmaker Samira al-Musawi. "Regardless of how many soldiers and policemen one can deploy, there will always be attacks claiming the lives of innocent people."

Earlier Monday, Iraqi government officials asked residents to be especially vigilant. U.S. and Iraqi officials predict that violence will continue to spike ahead of the March 7 elections, as insurgents attempt to cripple and delegitimize the Shiite-led government.

Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, a spokesman at the Baghdad security command, said in a statement that authorities are worried that insurgents will use a new type of bomb made with liquids.

"These liquids cannot be revealed through the explosives-detection equipment," he said.

Atta urged government officials in particular to change their routines and to refrain from leaving vehicles unattended.

The use of female suicide bombers became an effective technique for al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2008 and 2009 after the organization struggled to get non-Iraqi Arab men to travel to Iraq for suicide missions. Many of the female bombers are despondent widows of insurgents.

Special correspondents Qais Mizher and K.I. Ibrahim contributed to this report.

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