BAGHDAD – Suicide bombers, including at least three women, struck Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and Kurdish protesters in the northern city of Kirkuk on Monday, killing at least 57 people – a brutal reminder that mass gatherings remain vulnerable despite vast improvements in security.
The U.S. has stepped up efforts to recruit and train women for Iraq’s police force and enlist them to join Sunnis fighting al-Qaida. Insurgents increasingly use female bombers because their robes easily hide explosives and they are less likely to be searched.
U.S. military figures show at least 27 female suicide bombings this year, compared with eight in 2007.
The three nearly simultaneous bombings in Baghdad undermined public confidence in recent security gains that have tamped down sectarian bloodshed. The attack in Kirkuk, 180 miles to the north, showed that ethnic rivalries can turn into mass slaughter in a city that is home to Kurds, Turkomen, Arabs and other minorities.
The U.S. military blamed al-Qaida in Iraq for the Baghdad bombings. It was still investigating the Kirkuk attack, underscoring the more complicated nature of the tensions there. But city police spokesman Brig. Gen. Sarhat Qadir said the terror network was behind that attack as well.
The Baghdad bombings left piles of rubble and shattered glass on the streets alongside crumpled cars and sandals from panicked pilgrims, many of whom had slept at rest areas before rising at dawn to begin their annual march to the golden domed shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim.
In a throwback to more violent times, the Iraqi government announced a 24-hour curfew in Baghdad, banning all vehicle movement starting 5 a.m. today.
The bombers were walking among pilgrims streaming toward the golden domed shrine of the eighth-century imam. The shrine, the focus of a major Shiite festival this week, gives its name to the northern neighborhood of Kazimiyah that surrounds it.
Iraqi security forces had deployed about 200 women this week to search female pilgrims in Kazimiyah, but the attacks took place along the procession some six miles southeast of the shrine. There were too few women guards to search people in the procession itself.
The bombings showed the fragility of the gains as insurgents maintain the ability to wage high-profile attacks that inflict a heavy casualty toll. They come ahead of planned U.S.-Iraqi operations aimed at routing insurgents from Diyala province as well as rural hideouts elsewhere in northern Iraq.