A woman suicide bomber killed at least 41 people in an attack on Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad today.
The victims were heading to the southern city of Karbala to mark a Shiite holy day.
The bomber hid her explosives underneath an abaya – a black cloak worn from head to toe – as she joined a group of pilgrims on the outskirts of the Shiite-dominated neighbourhood of Shaab.
Police said more than 100 people were wounded and women and children were among the dead.
Witnesses described a chaotic scene in the minutes following the blast.
Raheem Kadhom, 35, was standing about 150 yards away when he saw a huge fireball erupt among the pilgrims.
They 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 across the ground, he said.
Many ran to the aid of the pilgrims. Some put the wounded in cars, taking them to hospitals rather than wait for ambulances.
Despite an overall decline in violence in Iraq, al-Qaida and other Sunni extremists have routinely targeted pilgrims in an attempt to stoke sectarian strife and weaken the Shiite-dominated government.
Iraqi authorities lack enough policewomen to conduct female searches at most checkpoints, and security forces have been reluctant to use bomb-sniffing dogs against people because of cultural sensitivities.
During a pilgrimage last February a female suicide bomber attacked a tent filled with women and children resting during the walk to Karbala, killing 40 people and wounding 60 others.
A month before that a suicide bomber dressed in women’s clothing and hiding among Iranian pilgrims killed more than three dozen people outside a mosque in Baghdad’s Shiite neighbourhood of Kazimiyah.
This week hundreds of thousands of Shiites make a pilgrimage to Karbala to mark the end of 40 days of mourning that follows Ashoura, the anniversary of the death Imam Hussein, one of two revered Shiite figures buried there.