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Three bomb blasts kill 50 Shiite pilgrims in Iraq

By Ali Qeis and Liz Sly
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 20, 2011; 8:11 PM

BAGHDAD - Continuing an upsurge of violence in Iraq, three bombs killed 50 Shiite pilgrims as they poured into the holy city of Karbala on Thursday ahead of a major religious commemoration.

At least 150 people were injured when the bombs exploded in separate locations on the packed roads leading into the city, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, according to Maj. Alaa al-Ghanemi, Karbala's police spokesman.

Despite initial reports that the bombings were suicide attacks, investigations showed that they were not, Ghanemi said. Two parked cars and a motorcycle had been rigged with explosives and detonated within quick succession in the three locations, he said.

The roads into Karbala were jammed at the time with some of the hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims who are converging on the city on foot from across Iraq and beyond for the annual Arbaeen commemoration, due to take place Tuesday. The festival marks 40 days after the anniversary of the death of the 7th-century Shiite martyr Hussein.

Such pilgrimages, which occur several times a year, have long been favored targets of the Sunni extremists who have declared war on Iraq's Shiite-led government, and police had been bracing for such attacks this week.

There were no assertions of responsibility, but Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blamed the attacks on "infidel terrorists," a reference to the Sunni extremist group al-Qaeda in Iraq. U.S. military officials, however, have expressed skepticism in the past that the group has the capacity to stage major bombings in the almost wholly Shiite cities of Iraq's south.

In a separate attack Thursday, a suicide bomber drove an explosives-packed car into the main gate of the police headquarters in the city of Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, killing two people in the third suicide attack this week against Iraq's security forces.

Thursday's deaths brought to more than 130 the number of people killed this week in a wave of bombings that have shattered nearly three months of calm and raised concerns that a fresh campaign of violence is being launched against Iraq's newly installed government.

Most of the attacks were suicide bombings in the Sunni heartland to the north and west of Baghdad, where al-Qaeda in Iraq is known to retain a presence.

Qeis is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.

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