- Associated Press - Thursday, July 8, 2010

BAGHDAD (AP) — At least 15 people were killed Thursday by bombs targeting the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who defied violence to take part in the final day of a Shiite religious holiday, officials said.

The deaths came one 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 Shi’ite figure.

While violence in Iraq has plummeted since the height of the insurgency a few years ago, the attacks targeting devout Shi’ites 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 come as Iraq is struggling 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 blocs jockey to form a ruling coalition, the ongoing political uncertainty has raised questions about whether insurgents will try to destabilize 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 Shi’ites as nonbelievers and object to the Shi’ite-led government that took over Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Six people died in eastern Baghdad and 36 were injured when a roadside bomb exploded Thursday morning as pilgrims were walking home from the mosque in the Kazimiyah neighborhood, while a car bomb in southern Baghdad killed another person.

Five more people were killed and 42 injured by a roadside bomb in northern Baghdad, said Iraqi hospital and police officials.

And in the afternoon, a roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad killed three people and wounded another 21 along a street where religious pilgrims were returning home.

Despite the violence, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis continued to stream through the city after visiting the shrine and began their long walk home after the ceremonies peaked earlier Thursday. The pilgrimage, although not the most important among Iraq’s Shi’ite-majority, is considered significant.

Hundreds of tents were erected along roads leading to and from the shrine, where food, tea and water was served to the pilgrims walking by. Pilgrims took respite from the blistering sun under the shade of the tents before continuing on their way. Young men showered the pilgrims with water sprinklers. Almost all the women wore black flowing robes called abayas as they walked with their families or other women.

Some of the thousands of police and soldiers dispatched to protect the city could be seen sitting or leaning on their vehicles.

Hlail Hussein, 33, was eating rice and soup at one of the many tents erected along the roads to the twin-domed shrine for pilgrims to replenish and rest for their journey.

“These terrorists and their bombings increase our love for our Imams and increase our determination to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of our Imams,” said Mr. Hussein, who came to Baghdad five days ago from the southern city of Nasiriyah.

A woman pushing her mother in a wheelchair, said she would continue despite the violence.

“Even Saddam’s regime could not prevent us from taking part in this march,” said Athraa Ali, 30. “We cannot stop living because of these explosions.”

Officials raised the death toll from Wednesday’s single most deadly attack to 35. The attack by a suicide bomber came as Shi’ite pilgrims were just about to cross a bridge from the mostly Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah Wednesday evening into the predominantly Shi’ite area of Kazimiyah where the shrine is located.

The Imams Bridge connecting the two neighborhoods was also the site of a deadly stampede in 2005 sparked by a rumor 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 was put in place across the Kazimiyah neighborhood in an attempt to thwart attacks. The ban was lifted later Thursday and all the bridges opened except for the Imams Bridge.

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.

Two people were also killed near Ramadi, 70 miles west of Baghdad, when insurgents blew up the houses of three policemen. An official with the Ramadi police department said the policemen were not in the houses at the time.

Ramadi is the provincial capital of Anbar, where police and security officials are often targeted by insurgents who view them as collaborators with the Shi’ite-led government.

The officials all spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Associated Press Writer Bushra Juhi contributed to this report.

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