Dozens of Shia pilgrims killed in Baghdad blasts

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The Independent Online

Three female suicide bombers killed 28 people and wounded 92 in Baghdad today as Shia pilgrims flooded into the Iraqi capital for a major religious event, police said.

In the northern oil city of Kirkuk a bomb killed at least 22 people and wounded 150 at a protest against a controversial provincial elections law, Iraqi health and security officials said. The US military said initial reports showed the attack was carried out by a suicide bomber.

The blasts marked one of the bloodiest days in months and underscored the fragility of recent security gains in Iraq, where violence is at its lowest level since early 2004.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the Baghdad blasts, but al-Qa'ida has often targeted Shia pilgrims taking part in religious events in Iraq. It considers Shiism - the majority Muslim denomination in Iraq - heretical.

"These blasts that happened today will increase our determination to finalise the ceremony of this visit and defeat terrorism," pilgrim Taher Abd-Noor said.

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has urged foreign dignitaries and firms to come to Iraq, citing stronger Iraqi security forces more able to keep the peace with less US military help.

The apparently coordinated explosions in Baghdad shattered a period of relative calm in the city and took place despite a heavy security clampdown before the annual Shia pilgrimage to the Kadhamiya shrine.

At least one million people are expected to take part in the pilgrimage, which peaks on Tuesday and marks the death of one of Shia Islam's 12 imams.

The US military said it was possible that three suicide bombers had carried out the attacks in the capital but did not specify if they were women. It put the death toll at 20.

The death toll in Kirkuk was 16, the US military said.

Al-Qa'ida has increasingly used women to carry out suicide attacks because they can often evade the more stringent security checks applied to men. Women have carried out more than 20 suicide attacks in Iraq this year.

Reuters television showed police, firemen and other workers washing blood and clearing debris from the street at the scene of one of the blasts in Baghdad. A Reuters witness saw workers collecting pieces of flesh and body parts.

The blasts occurred near the Karrada district in central Baghdad, an area many pilgrims pass through on their way to the shrine. Gunmen killed seven pilgrims in southern Baghdad on Sunday as they made their way to the shrine on foot.

In Kirkuk, Kurdish television footage showed thousands of people demonstrating against Iraq's provincial elections law when an explosion prompted a rush for cover.

A Reuters witness said there was a stampede as police started to shoot into the air.

Tensions have been in high in the disputed oil-rich city before provincial elections expected to take place either late this year or early in 2009.

"The death toll so far is 22 killed and more than 150 wounded," said Colonel Yazgar Shukr, a Kirkuk security official. A Kirkuk health official confirmed the death toll.

Mosques called for people to donate blood, the Reuters witness said.

Kurds in the ethnically mixed city say it should belong to the largely autonomous Kurdistan region, but Arabs and ethnic Turkmen want it to stay under central government authority.

A Turkmen member of the Kirkuk provincial council, Ali Mehdi, said armed demonstrators had attacked a Turkmen political office building and had surrounded his house.

"Angry demonstrators are surrounding my house and I'm trapped. Some of them are armed. Some attacked the Turkmen political building," he said.

Shukr said witnesses saw shots fired from the Turkmen office in the direction of the demonstrators after the initial blast.

Last week, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani rejected the provincial election law as unconstitutional after Iraq's Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the parliament session that passed it. That has forced lawmakers to try to reach a compromise.

The law would have postponed voting in Kirkuk and it included an article carving out fixed seat allocations to each ethnic or sectarian group in the city.

Sunni-Islamist al-Qa'ida has exploited ethnic faultlines in Iraq's north, where it has sought to regroup after being forced from its former strongholds in Baghdad and Iraq's West.