By Hamid Ahmed, Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD – A female suicide bomber attacked a tent filled with women and children resting from a pilgrimage to a Shiite holy city south of Baghdad on Friday, killing 40 people and injuring 60 others, said officials. It was the deadliest attack in Iraq this year and the third straight day of bombings against Shiite pilgrims.
The tent where the bomber detonated her explosives was located on a route to Karbala, where hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims will converge for an important religious ceremony on Monday, said a police official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
Separate tents for men and women are set up along the road to Karbala to offer pilgrims food, drinks and a place to rest.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf confirmed the attack and said security officials were rushing to the scene, located between the cities of Mussayib and Iskandariyah about 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Baghdad.
Mohammed Abbas, a medical official in Mussayib, said most of the dead and wounded from the attack were women and children.
Mussa al-Kadhem, a procession leader, said he was standing with other men serving tea to passing pilgrims when he spotted the suicide bomber walking in the opposite direction of the pilgrims.
Al-Kadhem said a "suspicious-looking woman" wearing a black abaya robe "and with her face covered came into the tent and sat down."
"As soon as some people asked who she was ... there was a huge explosion," he said.
In the aftermath of the explosion, witnesses said the pilgrims ran over each other trying to escape.
A man carrying his injured child wrapped in a red and yellow blanket, screamed at onlookers: "What is my son's fault? What did he do? What kind of belief system do these people have? Are they monsters?"
Hussein Faris, a 39-year-old from Baghdad who lost his wife in the attack and was wounded in the stomach, said people at the scene panicked.
"I was so terrified," said Faris. "People nearby stampeded, and many were hurt by that."
Sadiya Kadom, a 40-year-old woman from Baghdad, said she was walking near the tent at the time of the explosion and suffered injuries to her legs and hands.
"It was a horrific scene with dead and screaming injured people on the ground," said Kadom.
The attacks against the pilgrims appear to be part a Sunni extremist campaign to rekindle the sectarian conflict that nearly plunged the country into full-scale civil war two years ago.
On Thursday, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt packed with nails among Shiite worshippers in Karbala near the revered Imam Hussein shrine, killing eight pilgrims and wounding more than 50.
A day earlier, at least 12 people were killed and more than 40 wounded in bombings in Baghdad that targeted Shiite pilgrims traveling to Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the south.
Iraqi officials have mounted an extensive security operation to protect the pilgrims, who will be celebrating Monday's end of 40 days of mourning that follow Ashoura, the anniversary of the seventh-century death of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein.
He was killed in a battle near Karbala for the leadership of the nascent Muslim nation following Muhammad's death in 632. His death contributed to the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.
About 40,000 Iraqi troops have been deployed along major routes to Karbala, and officials say security cameras have been installed near the Imam Hussein shrine to keep a lookout for possible threats.
Despite strict security, al-Qaida and other extremist groups have frequently targeted Shiite pilgrims during religious commemorations, which were severely curtailed under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.
Last March, a female suicide bomber attacked Shiite worshippers in Karbala, killing at least 49. At least 85 people died in a suicide bombing in Karbala in March 2004.
The chief U.N. official in Iraq, Staffan de Mistura, has said the attacks against pilgrims were "clearly designed to provoke sectarian tensions" that many Iraqis hope are in the past.
The number of female suicide bombers in Iraq has been growing. Last year, they attempted or successfully carried out 32 attacks, compared with eight in 2007, according to U.S. military figures.
Also Friday, an old mortar round killed two young boys — ages 10 and 15 — who were playing in the backyard of a farm house in Musayyib, about 40 miles (65 kilometers) south of Baghdad, said a police official. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
It's such a shame that countrymen kill their own. And we all know that these holy pilgrimages are a huge target for insurgents. More and more women are being used because no one will search them, and they wear loose fitting garmets.