Two suicide bombers wearing vests stuffed with explosives blew themselves up in separate attacks in Iraq today, killing almost 70 people, many of them Iranian pilgrims, police said.
The blasts occurred as apprehension grows in Iraq ahead of a pullout by US troops from city centres in June, and after warnings from officials that insurgent groups may try to take advantage of that to launch attacks.
A national election due at the end of the year also threatens a resurgence in violence just as the bloodshed of the past six years appeared to be receding.
The blast in central Baghdad took place as a group of Iraqi national police were distributing relief supplies to families driven from their homes during the sectarian slaughter and insurgency unleashed by the 2003 US-led invasion.
Fifty people were wounded and at least five children were among the dead, police said.
Red Crescent food parcels and shattered packets of chocolate biscuits were strewn in the blood pooled on the pavement after the attack, while a woman dressed in a black abaya robe wailed and beat her thighs in anguish.
"It is a suicide bomber. Obviously that has the fingerprints of al-Qa'ida," said Baghdad security spokesman Major-General Qassim Moussawi.
The second attack occurred near Muqdadiya, 80 km (50 miles) northeast of Baghdad, in the volatile province of Diyala. The suicide bomber appeared to have targeted a group of Iranian pilgrims in a crowded roadside restaurant at lunchtime.
All but two of the 40 dead were Iranians visiting Shi'ite Muslim religious sites in Iraq, police said. Sixty-eight people were wounded.
Violence across Iraq has fallen sharply over the past year, but insurgents such as Sunni Islamist al Qaeda still carry out regular attacks. Suicide bombings are often associated with al Qaeda.
A suicide bomber on Wednesday killed at least five people and wounded 15 inside a mosque in central Iraq, and on Monday, a suicide bomber in a police uniform killed four policemen in Diyala. Eight US soldiers were wounded.
Shortly after today's attacks, state-owned al-Iraqiya television reported that the purported leader of an al-Qa'ida-affiliated insurgent group, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, had been arrested in eastern Baghdad.
Baghdadi is said to be the head of the Islamic State of Iraq, one of several groups thought to be behind suicide bombings and other attacks in the northern city of Mosul and elsewhere in Iraq.
His arrest, which could not be confirmed, has been reported before. Security experts have speculated in the past that Baghdadi was a character invented by some extremist groups rather than a real person.
Some Iraqis expect violence to increase in Iraq as rival political and armed groups position themselves ahead of a national election due to take place at the end of the year.
Iraqi officials say al-Qa'ida and other groups are also likely to try to test the Iraqi security forces as US troops prepare to pull out of cities ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.