- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2009

BAGHDAD | A female suicide bomber struck a tent filled with women and children resting during a pilgrimage south of Baghdad on Friday, killing 40 people and wounding about 80 in the deadliest of three straight days of attacks against Shi’ite worshippers.

Witnesses said many of the injured were hurt in a stampede as terrified survivors — most of them poor Shi’ites exhausted after days of walking — scrambled away from the tent in terror.

No group claimed responsibility, but suicide bombings against Shi’ite civilians are the signature attack of al Qaeda in Iraq, which U.S. commanders say has been severely weakened but not defeated.

“What kind of [religious beliefs] do these people have? Are they monsters?” a man shouted as he held his dazed and wounded son, wrapped in a red and yellow blanket.

“What is my son’s fault? What did he do?” implored the man, one of a number of pilgrims mingling around the site hours after the attack. He refused to give his name.

The bomber was successful in detonating her explosives despite a massive security operation by Iraqi authorities to protect the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims streaming into the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala for religious rituals that culminate Monday.

The vast numbers of pilgrims and the distances many of them must travel make it all but impossible to guarantee their safety against determined extremists willing to die.

The blast occurred at midday near a dusty stretch of road flanked by palm trees alongside a railroad track close to Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad and 10 miles north of Karbala.

Separate tents for men and women offer pilgrims food, beverages and a place to rest along the routes to Karbala.

A procession leader, Mussa al-Kadhem, said he was drinking tea with a group of men when he noticed a woman dressed in a full-body black abaya robe and with her face covered wander into the women’s tent.

He said he sensed something was wrong with the woman.

“As soon as some people asked who she was … there was a huge explosion,” he said.

Provincial health official Mohammed Abbas and the provincial police reported 40 people were killed and 81 wounded. Dr. Abbas said most of the victims were women and children.

If the casualty figure stands, it would be the deadliest attack in the country since Dec. 11, when a suicide bomber killed 55 people at a restaurant near Kirkuk, where Kurdish officials were meeting with Arab tribal leaders.

The latest attack occurred one day after a suicide bomber killed eight people and wounded more than 50 in Karbala.

And on Wednesday, at least 12 people were killed and more than 40 wounded in a series of bombings in Baghdad targeting pilgrims traveling to Karbala.

Pilgrims will be celebrating Monday’s end of 40 days of mourning that follow Ashoura, the anniversary of the seventh-century death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein.

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