Bomb hits pilgrims near holy city in Iraq

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A bomb planted on a parked motorcycle ripped through a crowd of Shia pilgrims today, killing at least 20 people and wounding more than 100 just days after authorities promised tighter security to combat a string of attacks on the huge religious procession, officials said.

The blast on the outskirts of the holy city of Karbala was the second major scene of bloodshed this week as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way to an important annual Shia religious observance. It raised fears of a spike in attacks by suspected Sunni insurgents when the pilgrimage culminates on Friday.

The bomb exploded at about 11am in an area known as Ibrahimia near the east entrance — one of three — into Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad, said a police official.

Witnesses described widespread panic as people tried to carry the dead and wounded through a thick crowd of pilgrims packed shoulder to shoulder. Some were injured as people tried to run from the blast site, said Kareem Madhi, a pilgrim from nearby Hillah.

"I saw a fireball and then black smoke raising," he said. "The security measures are unable to protect these huge numbers of pilgrims."

Iraqi police tried to prevent journalists from reaching the scene.

At least 108 people were wounded in the attack, the security official said, and cautioned that the number of casualties could increase. A hospital official in Karbala confirmed the number of dead and wounded.

Hours earlier, two separate roadside bombs targeting Shia pilgrims exploded in Baghdad, killing one and wounding seven others, a security official in the capital said.

The official said the first attack took place Wednesday at about 6.15am in western Baghdad, killing one person and wounding three. He said a second explosion in southwest Baghdad wounded four pilgrims.

For years, the main Shia pilgrimages have been a prime target for attacks blamed on Sunni extremists seeking to widen sectarian rifts. The current processions have brought hundreds of thousands of people streaming toward Karbala to end the 40-day mourning period marking the death of Hussein, a revered Shia figure from the 7th century.

Karbala police spokesman, Major Alaa Abbas, said more than 30,000 security personnel were deployed around the city. The measures included bomb-sniffing dogs at the three main entrances to Karbala and undercover intelligence agents in the crowds.