- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 2, 2010

BAGHDAD | A female suicide bomber mingling among Shi’ite pilgrims in Baghdad detonated an explosives belt Monday, killing at least 54 people, officials said.

The bombing was the first major strike this year against pilgrims making their way to the southern city of Karbala to mark a Shi’ite holy day. It came as a security official warned of a possible increase in attacks by insurgents using new tactics to bypass bomb-detection methods.

The bombing raises fears of an escalation of attacks as hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites head to Karbala to mark on Friday the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death Imam Hussein, a revered Shi’ite figure.

The bomber hid the explosives underneath an abaya — a black cloak worn from head to toe by women — as she joined a group of pilgrims on the outskirts of Baghdad’s Shi’ite-dominated neighborhood of Shaab, said Maj. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad’s top military spokesman.

The bomber set off the blast as she lined up with other women to be searched by female security guards at a security checkpoint just inside a rest tent, Gen. al-Moussawi said.

A police official said 54 people, including 18 women and 12 children, were killed and 117 were wounded. A hospital official confirmed the casualties.

Despite an overall decline in violence in Iraq, al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists have routinely targeted pilgrims in an attempt to stoke sectarian strife and weaken the Shi’ite-dominated government.

The vast numbers of pilgrims and the distances many of them must travel at predictable times of the year make it all but impossible to guarantee their safety against extremist groups. The pilgrims targeted Monday were walking from the northeastern Diyala province and other areas north of Baghdad, police said.

During a pilgrimage in February of last year, a female suicide bomber attacked a tent filled with women and children resting during the walk to Karbala, killing 40 people and wounding 60 others. A month before that, a suicide bomber dressed in women’s clothing and hiding among Iranian pilgrims killed more than three dozen people outside a mosque in Baghdad’s Shi’ite neighborhood of Kazimiyah.

Iraqi authorities lack enough policewomen to conduct searches of female travelers at most checkpoints, and security forces have been reluctant to use bomb-sniffing dogs against people because of cultural sensitivities.

Iraq’s forces have been using a bomb-detection device at checkpoints across the country that Britain banned for export after questions were raised about whether it works. Iraqi security officials have insisted it works, though they began their own investigation after the U.S. military also said the device did not work.

Meanwhile, Baghdad’s military command has referred 134 members of Iraq’s security forces for investigation. They are suspected of negligence for the security lapses that allowed last week’s suicide bombings at three hotels and Baghdad’s main crime lab, Gen. al-Moussawi said.

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