BAGHDAD — Terrorists targeted Shiite Muslim pilgrims Thursday at the gates of Karbala, one of Iraq’s most sacred cities; killing dozens and wounding hundreds in the latest case of a sudden surge in deadly violence.
Hospital officials said 63 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in explosions at security checkpoints near the entrances to the city, home of a shrine to the Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam. It was the deadliest attack in Iraq in several months, raising the death toll in three consecutive days of major bombings to more than 140 and shattering weeks of relative calm.
In separate attacks terrorists struck Shiite pilgrims and a police headquarters in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, killing at least five. On Wednesday, a suicide bomber drove a car rigged with explosives into a government building in Diyala, killing 15 people and wounding 55, according to police.
The spate of attacks, which began Tuesday with a suicide bombing that killed 60 people outside a police recruitment center in Tikrit, north of Baghdad, mark the first major spike in violence since Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki unveiled a new government in December.
While no group has claimed responsibility for this week's killings, many Iraqis suspect the Sunni-led Islamic State of Iraq, an al Qaida affiliate that's frequently targeted Shiites and government centers.
U.S. military officials, who are scheduled to withdraw the remaining 48,000 American troops from Iraq by December under a 2008 security agreement, say that Iraqi security forces have severely weakened the terrorist group in recent months. U.S. officials point to the arrests by Iraqi forces of dozens of key terrorist operatives, including the group's self-styled "wali," or governor, in Baghdad.
However, the group still shows the capacity to inflict massive carnage, as it did in October with a raid on a church in Baghdad that left 58 people dead, and Iraqi police have proved to be unable to secure large gatherings.
The attacks in Karbala, 60 miles south of Baghdad, occurred when at least two explosions went off almost simultaneously near the northern and southern entrances to the city. Hospitals were besieged with casualties, forcing dozens to be evacuated to Najaf, 50 miles away, and medical officials said they feared that the death toll would rise further.
Wisam Mohammed, a pilgrim who traveled from Baghdad, said he was walking near a checkpoint when an explosion hit less than 30 feet away. He said it seemed to be a car bomb.
"I saw a big ball of fire and the terrible sound of an explosion. I was thrown to the ground," Mohammed, 25, said by phone from a hospital in Najaf. Hours after the blast, he sounded disoriented. He suffered wounds to his hands and legs.
Millions of Shiite pilgrims, many dressed in black and carrying large flags, are traveling by foot to Karbala this month for Arbaeen, the commemoration of the death of the Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Arbaeen is scheduled to conclude Tuesday.
(Hammoudi is a McClatchy special correspondent. Special correspondents Qassim Zein and a reporter in Diyala who can't be named for security reasons contributed to this story.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more news from the Middle East, visit McClatchy's blog, Middle East Diary.