The bombing was the first major strike this year against pilgrims making their way to the southern city of Karbala to mark a Shi’ite holy day. It came as security official warned of a possible increase in attacks by insurgents using new tactics to bypass bomb-detection methods.
The bombing raises fears of an escalation of attacks as hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites head by Friday to the southern holy city of Karbala to mark the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death Imam Hussein, a revered Shi’ite figure.
The bomber hid the explosives underneath an abaya – a black cloak worn from head to toe by women – as she joined a group of pilgrims on the outskirts of Baghdad’s Shi’ite-dominated neighbourhood of Shaab, said Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad’s top military spokesman.
The bomber set off the blast as she lined up with other women to be searched by female security guards at a security checkpoint just inside a rest tent, al-Moussawi said. Another police official said the dead included at least five women and six children.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene in the minutes following the blast. Raheem Kadhom, 35, was standing about 140 metres away when he says a huge fireball erupted. Pilgrims were “on the ground, covered in blood and crying for help”, he said. “Banners were all over the ground and covered in blood.” The blast was so powerful it knocked some out of their slippers and shoes, which were scattered around, Khadhom said.
Many ran to their aid.
Despite an overall decline in violence in Iraq, al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists have targeted pilgrims in an attempt to stoke sectarian strife and weaken the Shi’ite-led government.