54 killed as suicide bomber targets Shiite pilgrims in Iraq

A female suicide bomber detonated a vest rigged with explosives among a crowd of Shiite Muslim pilgrims Monday in northeast Baghdad, killing 54 people and wounding 109, the latest in a string of attacks that have unnerved the city as pivotal elections loom next month.

The bomber hid the explosives under her voluminous black abaya, or cloak, and detonated them among pilgrims gathered at a hospitality tent in the neighborhood of Bab al Shams. The dead included five women employed to search female pilgrims for bombs, police said.

Taxi driver Ahmad Najem, 30, who witnessed the attack, described seeing a huge fireball erupt from the tent, followed by the wails of the injured.

"I saw the bodies of women and children, and bags and slippers strewn all around in pools of blood," said Najem, who joined in helping evacuate people.

The pilgrims were among hundreds of thousands walking to the shrine city of Karbala to mark Arbaeen, the end of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a 7th century figure revered by Shiites. Traditionally, residents set up hospitality tents to serve refreshments to the pilgrims.

Such public displays of Shiite religiosity were banned during Saddam Hussein's rule. Since his fall from power in 2003, millions have been making the journey on foot to the Karbala shrine. Just as regularly, insurgents have attacked them along the way, and Monday's bombing echoed one a year earlier in which a suicide attacker killed 40 pilgrims, also at a hospitality tent.

But a recent pilgrimage had gone off almost without incident, drawing boasts from the government that the security forces were in full control.

Monday's bombing was the bloodiest of the year, and was the fifth suicide attack in Baghdad in a week. It coincided with widespread fear that insurgent groups are gearing up for a major onslaught in the weeks before the March 7 national elections.

A dramatic deterioration in security could affect the withdrawal of most U.S. troops from Iraq, set to take place by the end of August.

American commanders have said they intend to assess things after the elections and decide whether to send home an estimated 65,000 combat troops, leaving a force of about 50,000 in Iraq.

liz.sly@latimes.com

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