BAGHDAD — Women suicide bombers targeted religious pilgrims in Baghdad and Kurdish political protesters in Kirkuk Monday in a jarring reminder of the sectarian conflicts that nearly ripped Iraq apart. At least 36 died and 182 were wounded in the four explosions, U.S. military officials said.
In Baghdad, as millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims walked toward the Kadhimiyah shrine a day before one of the holiest Shiite festivals, a homemade bomb blasted nails and screws near Firdous Square, where Saddam Hussein's statue was toppled five years ago.
The bomb was left under a chair at a rest stop, sponsored by Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, that served water, soft drinks and chocolate to the pilgrims, a witness told McClatchy. Panicked survivors fled into a narrow side street, where a woman blew herself up five minutes later; a second woman blew herself up fifteen minutes after that. At least 20 people died and 70 were wounded in the Baghdad attacks, a U.S. military spokesman said. Iraqi police said 26 were killed and at least 65 injured.
"I heard a huge bang with smoke afterward," said Zihoor Hussein, 27, who was taken with a piece of shrapnel in her chest to Ibn Al-Nafees Government Hospital hours after the attack. "I ran toward the other street. Later, I fainted. I found myself in the hospital." She said her mother was missing, her daughter and her aunt were injured and her cousin was killed.
Though security measures were heightened for the pilgrimage, and checkpoints added, including female police to search female pilgrims, Hussein said she hadn't been checked.
"What checkpoints? Where are they?" asked Waad Allah Qassim Yahiya Ridha, lying in the hospital with shrapnel in his chest and legs. His wife and children were still missing, he said, as he started to cry. "All of them are killed. I have no one with me now," he said. In pilgrimages, it is traditional for the husband to walk first, with his wife and children behind him: their bodies had shielded him from the brunt of the explosion.
A traffic police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak said police had received a tip Sunday that six female suicide bombers, headed by a woman named Umm Ahmed, were on their way into Baghdad. He said there were not enough checkpoints in the morning.
In Kirkuk, as hundreds of thousands of Kurds demonstrated against a provincial elections bill that would weaken Kurdish control of that oil-rich city, a woman detonated a suicide vest. Sixteen people were killed and 112 injured, a coalition spokesman said; Iraqi security officials said 23 were killed and more than 150 injured.
"Body parts flew all over the place," said Baram Subhi, 25, a college student who was part of the demonstration. White banners bearing Kurdish political slogans turned red with their blood.
Demonstrators ran from the blast toward the headquarters of the Iraqi Turkmen Front, and some set the building on fire, witnesses told McClatchy. Najat Hassan, the head of the local branch of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, claimed that gunmen inside the building had fired into the crowd.
A Turkmen Front politician on the Kirkuk Council, Hassan Toran, denied that and blamed Asaish, the Kurdish security intelligence service, for not controlling the demonstration.
In the last year, as searches and other security measures have become more stringent, women, who are less likely to be searched, have carried out more suicide attacks. Before Monday, women had been responsible for seven suicide attacks in June and July.
No one has claimed responsibility for the attacks, though a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad and government officials in Kirkuk pointed toward the terrorist group al Qaida in Iraq. On Monday night, the group's Web site claimed responsibility for an attack 10 days ago but made no mention of the day's attacks.
Violence in Iraq had been at a four-year low, and U.S. and Iraqi security forces claim to have crippled al Qaida in Iraq and the Shiite militias fighting them.
But the attacks are a reminder of the deep fault lines — between Kurds and Arabs in the north, and Sunni and Shiite Arabs in the rest of the country — still dividing Iraq.
"People wrote the requiem for sectarian conflict and AQI too rapidly," said Dr. Vali Nasr, of the Council on Foreign Relations.
"In the absence of a final settlement, the country is always vulnerable to regression, and we still may end up back where we were."
The government ordered a 24-hour ban on vehicular traffic starting early Tuesday morning.
(Spangler reports for The Miami Herald. Kadhim is a McClatchy special correspondent in Baghdad. In Baghdad, special correspondents Sahar Issa, Jenan Hussein and Laith Hamoudi contributed reporting. Special correspondent Yaseen Taha in Sulaimanyah also contributed.)