- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 8, 2009

BAGHDAD | A suicide truck bomber flattened a Shi’ite mosque Friday in northern Iraq, and roadside bombs struck Shi’ite pilgrims in Baghdad, as at least 51 people were killed and scores wounded nationwide.

It was the second-deadliest day since U.S. forces turned over urban security to the Iraqis more than a month ago, raising fears that Sunni insurgents are intensifying a campaign to reignite sectarian violence that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.

The blast in a northern suburb of Mosul reduced the mosque and several nearby houses to rubble, leaving scores of worshippers and neighbors trapped underneath. Rescue crews and ordinary citizens joined forces to pull bodies from the debris and search for survivors.

At least 38 people were killed and about 200 wounded, police said.

The attack targeted a mosque used by members of the minority Shi’ite Turkomen community in the tense northern city, which the U.S. military has dubbed the last urban stronghold of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Witnesses said the explosives apparently were hidden in white bags usually used to transport grain, and casualties were high because the blast struck as funeral services were being held along with Friday prayers.

The governor of the surrounding Ninevah province, Atheel al-Nujaifi, said many of the wounded were in critical condition. He blamed Iraqi security forces for failing to secure the area on the northern outskirts of Mosul.

Maj. Derrick Cheng, a spokesman for U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said the attack was likely part of a strategy to discredit the provincial government and local security forces as well as fuel ethnic and sectarian tensions.

“These attacks can be seen as an attempt to feed any divide that currently exists or attempt to create one,” Maj. Cheng said in an e-mail.

Roadside bombs also targeted Shi’ite pilgrims returning from the holy city of Karbala, where hundreds of thousands of followers converged to celebrate the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th Shi’ite imam, who disappeared in the ninth century.

Devout Shi’ites call him the Hidden Imam and believe he will return to restore peace and harmony.

Shi’ite pilgrimages frequently have been targeted by bombers and gunmen since resuming in force after the Sunni-dominated regime of Saddam Hussein was ousted in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

The first bomb targeted a minibus ferrying pilgrims back to Baghdad’s main Shi’ite district of Sadr City, killing at least four people and wounding eight, police and hospital officials said.

Two nearly simultaneous bombs exploded later near the Shaab stadium in eastern Baghdad. They killed three pilgrims and wounded 13 others as they were walking home to Sadr City, said another police official.

The blasts came a week after a string of bombings targeting Shi’ite mosques in the Baghdad area that killed at least 29 people.

Hours later, an explosives-laden motorcycle blew up as a police patrol passed by near people lined up to buy bread at a bakery in a mainly Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad, killing at least six people - including three policemen - and wounding 30, officials said.

U.S. commanders have said they were pleased with the progress since U.S. combat troops pulled back from cities June 30 as part of a withdrawal plan that would see all U.S. forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011. But U.S. officials have also repeatedly called the security gains fragile and cautioned that a waning insurgency still has the ability to pull off high-profile bombings.

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