BAGHDAD — More than three dozen Shiite Muslim pilgrims were killed Friday when a suicide bomber blew herself up at a crowded roadside tent in central Iraq, marking the first time in more than a month that a suicide bomber carried out such a deadly attack.
The blast — the third straight day of intense violence — threatens to set back the security gains Iraq has made in recent months as Washington prepares to draw down U.S. troop levels.
On Friday at noon, 38 pilgrims were killed and 80 were wounded when the suicide bomber — concealing explosives in her clothes — blew herself up in Musayyib, a mostly Shiite city 35 miles south of Baghdad, police said. Security forces had tried to search her at a checkpoint, but she hurried away and detonated the explosives, said Col. Shawakt al Alosi, a spokesman for the Iraqi Land Forces.
Most of the victims were women and children who were among the millions walking to Karbala for Ashura, a sacred holiday during which Shiite Muslims mourn the passing of Imam Hussein. Under Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led regime, Shiite pilgrims observed the holiday in secret; since Saddam's 2003 ouster, more pilgrims have made the journey as security conditions improved.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Merced Sun-Star
This year, Iraqi officials say they expect eight million to nine million pilgrims to pour into Karbala, and have deployed 32,000 security forces to the city and surrounding areas. Additional troops are on standby, authorities say. Alosi said the Iraqi Security Forces have not reached out to the U.S.-led Multi-National Force in Iraq for backup.
In the past three days, car bombings, political assassinations and suicide attacks — including Friday's — have claimed the lives of at least 72 people. The climb in violence comes after a stretch of relative calm following five years of sectarian warfare.
Much to the relief of many Iraqis, the Jan. 31 election passed without major violence. However, the vote's pending outcome — results should be released next week — could be exacerbating tensions among rival sects and politicians.
Despite a heightened security presence in Karbala and beyond, attacks on Shiite Muslim pilgrims have persisted.
Somebody on Thursday cleared several checkpoints and placed an explosive propane tank on a crowded pedestrian path near one of two holy shrines in the heart of Karbala. The device killed seven and wounded 35.
Another heavily Shiite area — a neighborhood in south Baghdad — was attacked on Wednesday. When back-to-back car bombs tore through a busy marketplace and bus depot, 16 died and 43 were wounded.
The attacks targeting Shiite Muslim pilgrims coincide with a spate of attacks directed at Sunni politicians and others in the north.
In Mosul, a volatile city to the north where Iraqi security forces have yet to secure control, sectarian tensions between Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds have intensified.
In the past few days, Mosul has seen a mounting death toll. Among the dead: Four policemen, one Sunni politician, one civilian, and an Iraqi soldier. And on Monday, four American soldiers and their interpreter were killed at a checkpoint when a vehicle with a makeshift explosive blew up nearby.
Mosul, Iraq's largest city to the north, has had a mostly Kurdish government oversee its Arab majority. The Kurdish parties in power, however, were defeated in the recent election by the Sunni Arab nationalist party al Hadbaa with 48.8 percent of the vote.
Four others, including a pilgrim and two policemen, also have died in recent attacks.
Also on Friday, radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr issued a statement in which he called for the revival of an alliance with a post-sectarian agenda and a new name, the National Iraqi Unity Alliance.
"I call on everyone to help it succeed and to ensure the failure of Iraqis' enemies, especially the occupiers," said Sadr, whose two slates he endorsed finished closely behind the front-runner, the party of Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
The attack on Friday was the deadliest of its kind since a woman detonated her suicide belt on Jan. 4 in northern Baghdad. As many as 40 people died; about 76 were wounded.
(Daniel reports for The Miami Herald. Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. McClatchy special correspondent Qassim Zein in Najaf contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY