A bomb killed at least 30 Shi'ite pilgrims near the southern port city of Basra today, Iraqi officials said. It was the latest in a series of attacks during Shi'ite religious commemorations that threaten to further increase sectarian tensions just weeks after the US withdrawal.
Basra hospitals have received 30 killed and 90 wounded after the blast, said Dr. Riyadh Abdul-Amir, the head of Basra Health Directorate. Witnesses said the attack occurred outside the town of Zubair, southwest of Basra, as pilgrims were making their way to a Shi'ite shrine nearby. A police official, speaking anonymously, confirmed the death toll.
The governor of Basra province's spokesman, Ayad al-Emarah, said it was not clear whether the blast was caused by a suicide attacker or a roadside bomb.
Zubair is a predominantly Sunni enclave in Iraq's largely Shi'ite south.
The explosion came as Shi'ites commemorate the climax of Arbaeen, which marks the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a revered Shi'ite figure.
Majid Hussein, a government employee, was one of the pilgrims heading to the shrine. He said people began running away in panic when they heard a loud explosion.
"I saw several dead bodies and wounded people, including children on the ground asking for help. There were also some baby strollers left at the blast site," he said.
The attack, which bore the hallmarks of Sunni insurgents, is the latest in a series of deadly strikes in this year's Arbaeen. Scores of pilgrims have been killed.
The largest of the Arbaeen attacks — a wave of apparently coordinated bombings in Baghdad and outside the southern city of Nasiriyah — killed at least 78 people on 5 January. It was the deadliest strike in Iraq in more than a year.
The attacks raise fears of a new sectarian rift that could destabilize the country now that US troops are gone.
Deputy Prime Minister Saleh al-Mutlaq yesterday called for Iraq's leader, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, to step down or face a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. Al-Mutlaq's Sunni-backed Iraqiya party has been boycotting parliament and Cabinet meetings since last month to protest what it sees as efforts by al-Maliki to consolidate power, particularly over state security forces.
Al-Maliki's government, meanwhile, has demanded the arrest of the country's top Sunni politician, Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi of Iraqiya, accusing him of running a hit squad targeting government officials. Al-Hashemi denies the allegations.