BAGHDAD — A female suicide bomber walked into a tent full of Shiite Muslim pilgrims on Monday, killing at least 46 people and wounding another 100 in the latest attack in the run-up to Iraqi elections next month.
"It is a political matter — it is part of the elections campaign," said Captain Sameer, an Iraqi Army officer near the scene. "An explosion like this that takes place targeting Shiites on a sacred religious rite — the obvious thing to do is to blame Sunnis, and this would of course affect their standing in the elections."
Iraqis have blamed a recent wave of major suicide bombings on political battles ahead of parliamentary elections in March. Attacks a week ago hit three major hotels in Baghdad and the Interior Ministry's forensics department.
Al Qaida in Iraq has taken responsibility for those blasts, as well as for coordinated suicide bombings targeting government ministries since August, all of which have raised doubts about the Iraqi government's ability to provide security for the elections and as the Obama administration withdraws U.S. troops from Iraq.
Iraqi security officials said Monday's attack was carried out on the northeastern outskirts of Baghdad, where the roads were filled with thousands of thousands of pilgrims walking to the Shiite holy city of Karbala. Women and children were among the casualties.
Sameer, reached by phone, said the bomber was believed to be a woman dressed in an abaya, the traditional black cloak, and carrying a bag who walked into one of the roadside tents set up to offer food and rest to the pilgrims.
The target was believed to be the pilgrimage tent in the Boub al-Sham neighborhood. The tent was also near the headquarters of a National Police unit known as The Wolf Brigade, which was identified with Shiite death squads during Iraq's sectarian war but since reformed.
The Baghdad Operations Command gave a slightly different account of the attack, saying in a statement that the bomber detonated the explosive belt while passing through a security check at the tent. The statement said three female searchers were among the dead. The statement listed the death toll as 38 dead and 80 wounded.
Attacks had been expected along the hundreds of miles of the pilgrimage route, which is almost impossible to secure.
In the past few days, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have set out by foot from all parts of Iraq for Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad. The pilgrimage commemorates Arbaeen, the end of 40 days of mourning after the death of Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson who was killed in battle 13 centuries ago.
His betrayal and death is one of the defining elements in the Shiite identity, and the public procession was banned during Saddam Hussein's regime. The ceremonies include men and boys beating themselves with chains and cutting themselves with knives to signify their remorse.
Sameer said there were female searchers along the route but widely spaced between checkpoints, making it difficult to prevent a suicide bomber from joining the procession.
"I saw the smoldering remains of the tent," said Sameer, who didn't want his last name to be used. "I saw bits and pieces of humanity scattered — it was a massacre. This was a very painful day."
(Arraf reports for The Christian Science Monitor; Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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