|Men carry a wounded man to safety in Karbala, 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Baghdad, Iraq, Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011.|
BAGHDAD — Suicide bombers launched a series of deadly assaults on Thursday against pilgrims marching toward a shrine sacred to Shiite Muslims, the police said, and dozens were killed in a third straight day of attacks against an array of targets.
The pilgrimage, which was banned under Saddam Hussein, is expected to draw as many as 10 million people to the city of Karbala over a period of 10 days. It has been an annual flash point for sectarian violence. Until this week the holiday had been free of major bloodshed, and Iraqi security forces had claimed progress in their ability to protect the populace from violent extremist groups.
That progress evaporated on Thursday, as three car bombs along the roads leading to Karbala, some 60 miles south of Baghdad, killed at least 52 people and wounded 150, according to an official with the Iraqi police.
The three cars were parked near police checkpoints and exploded at roughly the same time, despite heightened security along the route. No group claimed responsibility for the attacks, which resembled previous assaults attributed to Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia or an affiliated group, the Islamic State of Iraq.
“The attacks were expected, because this is the biggest annual commemoration, with the highest number of pilgrims,” said Hussein Sadhan, a member of Karbala’s provincial council. “We are expecting more attacks by Al Qaeda because the pilgrims are open and easy to target and while Al Qaeda is invisible.”
In Diyala province, a roadside bomb killed one marcher and injured three, and another bomb in Dora killed one and injured nine.
Overall, violence in Iraq is down from previous years, but this week saw three consecutive days of major attacks on both Iraq security forces and Shiite pilgrims, raising fears that extremist groups were regaining some of the deadly capabilities that terrorized the country in 2006 and 2007.
The explosions did not deter marchers, who have continued the pilgrimage in the face of threats and previous attacks. The pilgrimage is to commemorate the death of the Imam Hussein ibn Ali, a central figure in Shiite Islam, in A.D. 680. The final 10 days mark the end of a 40-day period of mourning after his death.
“I will be happy if I die while I am visiting my Imam,” said Ahmed al-Rubai in a telephone interview as he was walking from Baghdad toward Karbala. “I want to tell them that no party in the world can stop us from marching.”