BAGHDAD – A bomb killed at least 53 Shiite Muslim pilgrims in southern Iraq on Saturday, an attack certain to inflame sectarian tensions in a country shaken by escalating violence since U.S. forces withdrew in December.
The blast, which wounded more than 130 people, targeted pilgrims heading toward a Shiite mosque between the cities of Zubayr and Basra.
There were conflicting reports on the explosion. One official blamed a lone attacker holding fake identification and wearing a uniform. Another version suggested that a policeman was trying to stop an assailant.
Many Iraqis are worried the country will return to the sectarian bloodletting that swept cities and villages and nearly sparked civil war from 2005 to 2007. Tensions have risen since the departure of U.S. troops and an ensuing political crisis over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s plans to consolidate Shiite power over government ministries, including state security services.
The pilgrims Saturday were commemorating the seventh-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. The Khotwa mosque outside Zubayr is a destination for many worshippers who cannot endure the longer journey to the holy city of Karbala, where the imam is buried.
The bombing was part of a series of what are widely believed to be Sunni insurgent attacks against Shiite worshippers in an effort to destabilize the government. Explosions and ambushes on pilgrims – despite increased security – have become common during the annual 40-day mourning period known as Arbaeen.