At least 12 people in Baghdad were killed by bombs targeting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims taking part in the final day of a Shiite religious holiday today.
The deaths came a day after nearly 60 people were killed in attacks in and around the Iraqi capital, most of them by a suicide bomber who targeted pilgrims heading to a mosque in northern Baghdad to mark the anniversary of the death of a revered Shiite figure.
While violence in Iraq has plummeted since the height of the insurgency a few years ago, the attacks targeting devout Shiites who walk from across Iraq to take part in the holy occasion underscore the tentative nature of the security gains and the persistent attempts by insurgents to once again foment sectarian divisions.
The attacks came as Iraq struggles to seat a government a little over four months after the March 7 election failed to bring about a clear winner to lead the country.
As opposing political groups jockey to form a ruling coalition, the political uncertainty has raised questions about whether insurgents will try to destabilise the country just as American troops are reducing their numbers to 50,000 by the end of August.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks but similar incidents in the past have been blamed on Sunni extremists who view Shiites as non-believers and object to the Shiite-led government that took over Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.
Six people died in eastern Baghdad when a roadside bomb exploded Thursday morning as pilgrims were walking home from the mosque in the Kazimiyah neighbourhood, while a car bomb in southern Baghdad killed another person.
Five more people were killed by a roadside bomb in northern Baghdad.
Despite the violence, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis continued to stream through the city visiting the shrine as the ceremonies peaked Thursday, which is also for many the beginning of their long walk home. The pilgrimage, although not the most important among Iraq’s Shiite-majority, is considered significant.
Officials raised the death toll from yesterday’s single most deadly attack to 35. The attack by a suicide bomber came as Shiite pilgrims were just about to cross a bridge from the mostly Sunni neighbourhood of Azamiyah into the predominantly Shiite area of Kazimiyah where the shrine is located.
The Imams Bridge connecting the two neighbourhoods was also the site of a deadly stampede in 2005 sparked by a rumour that a suicide bomber was among the crowd; 900 people were killed in the ensuing melee.
Iraqi security forces have blanketed the city with about 200,000 personnel, and a vehicle ban has been in place across the Kazimiyah neighbourhood in an attempt to thwart attacks.
But the sheer number of pilgrims as well as the spread-out nature of the religious event – with roads around the country blocked to allow pilgrims to walk to and from Baghdad – make it almost impossible for security forces to protect everyone.