- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

BAGHDAD — A suicide car bomber barreled into a flatbed truck packed with Shi’ite pilgrims yesterday, touching off a giant fireball that left charred bodies strewn through a street in the heart of Baghdad. At least 32 persons were killed.

The ambush-style attack showed suspected Sunni insurgents again taking aim at the millions of worshippers who traveled to the city of Karbala and are now heading home.

Blasts also killed at least 15 more in Baghdad a day after Iraqi officials warned an international conference that Iraq’s sectarian violence could spread across the Middle East if not quelled.

Hundreds of Shi’ite pilgrims were killed last week trying to reach the rituals in Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. The return trip exposes them to the same risks.

The pilgrims riding back in the truck — about 70 men and boys — passed through the most dangerous stretch of Sunni-dominated territory. They were celebrating their good fortune as they moved into heavy traffic at a place known as Embassy Intersection because the German diplomatic compound occupies one corner.

One of the pilgrims, Mustafa Moussawi, noticed a car racing toward them from behind.

“Then the car bomber slammed us,” said Mr. Moussawi, a 31-year-old vegetable-store owner who suffered slight injuries when he was thrown to the street by the force of the blast.

Police and hospital officials said at least 32 persons died and 24 were injured.

“I blame the government,” said Mr. Moussawi. “They didn’t provide a safe route for us even though they knew we were targets for attack.”

In the past two years, the Shi’ite militia Mahdi’s Army provided security for the pilgrimage — marking the end of 40 days mourning for the seventh-century battlefield death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson. Shi’ites consider him the rightful heir of Islam’s leadership, which help cement the rift with Sunni Muslims.

This year, however, the Mahdi’s Army militiamen have been sent away under a deal between its leader, radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the government to ease the way for the Baghdad security sweeps.

The pact has apparently led to a decrease in execution-style slayings blamed on Shi’ite death squads. It also made the pilgrims easier prey.

Shortly before the truck was attacked, a bomb-rigged car in central Baghdad killed at least five pilgrims and injured six. In another part of the city, a suicide bomber detonated a belt packed with metal fragments inside a minibus heading to a mostly Shi’ite area, killing at least 10 persons and wounding five.

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