- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 15, 2009

BAGHDAD | Iraqi officials deployed 5,000 plainclothes military personnel south of Baghdad on Saturday, beefing up security in an attempt to stop deadly bombings against Shi’ite pilgrims that have plagued the country over the past three days, police said.

The increased security came a day after a female suicide bomber struck a tent filled with women and children resting during a pilgrimage to the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, killing 40 people and wounding about 80 in the deadliest attack in Iraq this year.

The military personnel will monitor suspicious movements among the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims streaming toward Karbala, said Capt. Alaa Abbas Jaafar, spokesman for the Karbala police.

The government already has deployed 30,000 security personnel in the province that contains Karbala to protect the city, along with 400 snipers on rooftops and 1,500 female security guards to search women, Capt. Jaafar said.

Despite the tight security, bombings have killed 60 Shi’ite pilgrims and wounded 170 over the past three days. The attacks demonstrate the determination of some Sunni extremists to re-ignite sectarian warfare and underscore how fragile security remains here despite a significant decline in overall violence.

The vast numbers of pilgrims and the distances many of them must travel make it extremely difficult to protect them.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but al Qaeda and other extremist groups have frequently targeted Shi’ite pilgrims during religious commemorations, which were severely curtailed under Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime.

U.S. commanders say al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists have been severely weakened in Iraq but not defeated.

On Thursday, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt packed with nails, killing eight people and wounding more than 50 in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad.

A day earlier, at least 12 people were killed and more than 40 wounded in a series of bombings in Baghdad targeting pilgrims traveling through the capital on their way to Karbala, where they will be celebrating Monday’s end of 40 days of mourning that follow the anniversary of the seventh-century death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein.

He was killed near Karbala in a battle for the leadership of the Muslim nation after Muhammad’s death in 632. His death contributed to the split between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

Elsewhere, a roadside bomb killed two civilians and wounded four others, including a soldier, when it exploded Saturday near an Iraqi army patrol in western Mosul, 240 miles north of Baghdad, an Iraqi police official said.

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