Bombings in Iraq target Shiite pilgrims

BAGHDAD — Bombs hit Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and a central Iraqi city Thursday, killing at least 27 people and wounding scores more, in the latest attack in the lead-up to Ashoura, the sect's most solemn annual rite.

The blasts raised fears of more bloodshed as hundreds of thousands of Shiites head to the holy city of Karbala in central Iraq for ceremonies Sunday to mark the climax of the religious observance. Ashoura's 10 days of mourning are in remembrance of the killing of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, in a 680 A.D. battle that sealed the split between Shiites and Sunnis.

Authorities said twin bombs killed at least 13 people and injured 74 others in the central Iraqi town of Hillah, the capital of Babil province, which is located about 60 miles south of Baghdad. The explosions hit a busy bus terminal where many Shiite pilgrims had gathered.

Abandoned shoes lay in puddles of blood as shell-shocked survivors sat in front of damaged storefronts.

Hours later, a bomb targeting a funeral in Baghdad killed nine and wounded 33 in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood, police and hospital officials said. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to media.

It was unclear if the attackers thought they were targeting an Ashoura procession, when devout Shiites beat themselves with swords and other instruments to show their devotion and mourning for Imam Hussein.

Also in Baghdad, another bomb killed five Shiite pilgrims and wounded 18 others on their way to Karbala, police and hospital officials said.

Although Ashoura is essentially an expression of religious grief, it has also become a demonstration of power by Iraq's majority Shiites. Observance of the holy day was forbidden by former dictator Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime. After he was ousted and a Shiite-led government came to power, pilgrims turned out en masse to mark the occasion, defying the threat of insurgent attacks.

People from around southern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, make up the bulk of pilgrims traveling to Karbala. In Karbala itself, police said another explosion injured eight pilgrims about a mile from the al-Hussein holy shrine.

In Hillah, the twin bombs went off 15 minutes apart, with the second explosion catching emergency workers and civilians responding to the first blast, said police Maj. Muthana Khalid.

Thursday's explosions were not as deadly as in previous years. But clerics from both sides of the divide denounced the insurgents' attempts to re-ignite the sectarian hatred that shook the country two years ago.