BAGHDAD — At least 40 Shiite pilgrims were killed and 60 injured in a suicide bombing south of Baghdad Sunday in what was once known as the Sunni triangle of death.
The bombing in Iskandariyah came as hundreds of thousands of Shiites took to the streets to walk the 50 miles to the holy city of Karbala for Arbaeen. The ceremony on Thursday commemorates the anniversary of the 40th day following the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, a venerated figure in Shiite Islam.
As pilgrims stopped for water and food at a tent set up to serve them along their journey, a suicide bomber walked into the crowd and detonated, killing and wounding many of the pilgrims, said Muthanna Ahmed, spokesman for the police in Babil province. He expected the death toll to rise.
Attacks on Shiite pilgrims have become commonplace in the nearly five years of the Iraq war. Pilgrims walking to holy Shiite cities in the south are often met with sniper fire, bombings and grenades. But the walking did not stop. Young and old continued the trek Sunday, and millions of pilgrims were expected in Karbala by Thursday.
In south Baghdad three more pilgrims were killed when grenades were thrown into a crowd of people.
Meanwhile, in the north along the border with Turkey, a battle continued a third day between the Kurdistan Worker's Party, or PKK, and the Turkish military, which crossed into Iraq last week to fight the militant organization in the rugged Qandill Mountains.
The PKK, considered a terrorist group by the United States, is battling for an independent Kurdistan in southeast Turkey. Turkey, meanwhile, has taken aim against the group's sanctuaries in northern Iraq; Sunday was the fourth day of shelling and artillery fire in the area.
The two sides issued sharply conflicting accounts of casualties in the initial days of fighting.
The president of the Kurdistan region, Massoud Barzani, sent an urgent message to President Bush, asking him to intervene, according to Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. He called the Iraqi government's reaction to the incursion "embarrassing" and "weak."
"We are angry because Turkey is targeting infrastructure and this is proof that the Turkish target is the Kurdistan region and not the PKK," he said, referring to five bridges knocked out by Turkish shelling. "If our citizens are attacked, we will defend ourselves. We don't want to fight anyone but if they fight us, we will defend ourselves."
Along the border, civilians were trapped inside, unable to move as shelling rained down.
Barzani warned that continued Turkish military operations would destabilize the region, one of the only secure places in Iraq.
The Union of Muslim Clerics in Kurdistan issued a religious edict that said it was an obligation to fight the Turkish forces inside Iraq.
"Facing the Turkish troops is a duty because it's a defense of one's self and land," said Mohammed Aqrawi, chairman of the union.
The PKK said the U.S. and Iraqi Kurdish parties played a role in the Turkish military incursion.
"What happened is not only a military invasion, it's a big political game," said Bahoz Ardal, a PKK commander. "Turkey wants to control Kurdistan."
He called for Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan and the Kurdish region in southeast Turkey to rise up against the Turkish military.
"We changed the city and the villages of Kurdistan into hell for the Turkish army and we demand the young and the brave in the Turkish cities inside Turkey to face the army and to change northern Kurdistan (southeast Turkey) into hell for the Turkish attackers," he said. "We changed Iraqi Kurdistan into their graveyard."
Special Correspondent Taha reported from Sulaimaniyah and Fadel reported from Baghdad. Special Correspondent Qassim Zein contributed to this report.