- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

BAGHDAD — A powerful bomb killed three American soldiers trying to clear explosives from a highway near Baghdad yesterday, and a suicide attacker blew himself up in a cafe northeast of the capital, killing 30 persons and wounding dozens.

The deadly assaults occurred as Iraqi security forces struggled to protect more than 1 million Shi’ite pilgrims streaming toward Karbala for annual religious rituals — and facing a string of attacks along the way that have claimed more than 150 lives in two days.

They included 22 persons — 12 police commandos and 10 civilians — who died yesterday in a car bombing at a checkpoint in southern Baghdad set up to protect pilgrims, the U.S. military said. An Iraqi TV cameraman working for a Shi’ite-owned station was among the civilian dead, his station said.

One American soldier was wounded in the attack on the bomb-clearing team on a major highway just north of the capital, the U.S. military said. The names of the victims were withheld until their families are notified.

American troops have stepped up efforts to clear and secure major highways around the capital as part of the Baghdad security crackdown, which began last month.

But the operation, which will eventually see an additional 17,000 U.S. combat troops in the capital, has so far failed to intimidate Sunni insurgents, who have retaliated with attacks outside the city — including those against Shi’ite pilgrims.

At least 13 U.S. troops have been killed in Iraq since Sunday, all of them in Sunni areas north and east of Baghdad. Nine Americans died Monday, the deadliest day for the U.S. military here in nearly a month.

The suicide attack took place near sunset at a popular cafe in Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, where Sunni extremists have been forcing Shi’ites to flee through a campaign of assassination and intimidation.

A senior police officer said dozens of people were gathered around the cafe enjoying mild, sunny weather when the attacker struck, killing 30 persons and wounding 25. The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing for his personal safety.

Iraqi security forces have been bracing for more trouble this weekend at the climax of Shi’ite religious rites marking the end of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Hussein’s death in a 7th-century battle near Karbala cemented the schism between Sunnis and Shi’ites.

Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims were streaming by bus, car and foot into Karbala, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, many of them marching behind banners affirming their reverence for Imam Hussein.

On Tuesday, two suicide bombers exploded themselves among pilgrims lining up at a checkpoint in the southern city of Hillah, killing at least 120 persons and wounding about 190. More than 30 other pilgrims have been killed in dozens of bombings and shootings since the pilgrimages began this week.

In Karbala, Iraqi security forces set up a six-ring cordon around the two main Shi’ite shrines as the city swelled with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.

Local Gov. Aqeel al-Khazalie said 10,000 policeman were deployed in the city, with pilgrims undergoing multiple searches at checkpoints before they reach the two major shrines, the focus of the weekend rites.

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