Image: Site of suicide bombing
Stringer/iraq  /  Reuters
A Shiite pilgrim inspects the scene of Friday's suicide bomb attack in Mussayab, south of Baghdad, Iraq. Dozens of people, mostly women and children, were killed in the explosion.
updated 2/13/2009 11:02:02 AM ET 2009-02-13T16:02:02

A female suicide bomber struck a tent filled with women and children resting during a pilgrimage south of Baghdad on Friday, killing 40 people and wounding about 80 in the deadliest of three straight days of attacks against Shiite worshippers.

The grisly assault, which also appeared to be the deadliest in Iraq this year, demonstrates the determination of some extremists to re-ignite sectarian warfare. It also underscores how fragile security remains here, even as the U.S. turns over more responsibility to the Iraqis.

Witnesses said many of the injured were hurt in a stampede as terrified survivors — most of them poor Shiites exhausted after days of walking — scrambled away from the tent in terror.

They left behind piles of clothing, small rugs and toddlers’ strollers, Associated Press Television News video showed. A dismembered leg believed to have been the bomber’s lay wrapped in an abaya in a cardboard box.

“It was a horrific scene with dead and screaming injured people on the ground,” said Sadiya Kadom, 40, a Baghdad resident who was near the tent when the blast occurred.

No group claimed responsibility. But suicide bombings against Shiite civilians are the signature attack of al-Qaida in Iraq, which U.S. commanders say has been severely weakened but not defeated.

“What kind of belief system do these people have? Are they monsters?” a man shouted as he held his dazed and wounded son, wrapped in a red and yellow blanket.

“What is my son’s fault? What did he do?” implored the man, one of a number of pilgrims mingling aimlessly around the site hours after the attack. He refused to give his name.

'There was a huge explosion'
The bomber was successful in detonating her explosives despite a massive security operation by Iraqi authorities to protect the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims streaming into the Shiite holy city of Karbala for religious rituals that culminate Monday.

The vast numbers of pilgrims and the distances many of them must travel make it all but impossible to guarantee their safety against determined extremist groups willing to die.

The blast occurred at midday near a dusty stretch of road flanked by palm trees alongside a railroad track close to Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad and 10 miles north of Karbala.

Separate tents for men and women offer pilgrims food, beverages and a place to rest along the routes to Karbala.

A procession leader, Mussa al-Kadhem, said he was drinking tea with a group of men when he noticed a woman dressed in a full-body black abaya robe and with her face covered wander into the women’s tent.

He said he sensed something was wrong with the woman.

“As soon as some people asked who she was ... there was a huge explosion,” he said.

'Running in terror'
Hussein Faris, 39, said he was injured in the stomach but that his wife, who was walking behind him closer to the tent, was killed.

“I was so terrified. People nearby were running in terror and many got hurt in the stampede,” he said at a hospital in nearby Hillah.

Provincial health official Dr. Mohammed Abbas and the provincial police reported 40 people were killed and 81 wounded. Abbas said most of the victims were women and children.

Casualty figures in Iraq often fluctuate, but if the tally stands, it would be the deadliest attack in the country since Dec. 11, when a suicide bomber killed 55 people at a restaurant near Kirkuk where Kurdish officials were meeting with Arab tribal leaders.

Suicide attacks
The latest attack occurred one day after a suicide bomber killed eight people and wounded more than 50 in Karbala.

And on Wednesday, at least 12 people were killed and more than 40 wounded in a series of bombings in Baghdad targeting pilgrims traveling to Karbala.

At least 36 people were killed Jan. 6 during a suicide attack against Shiite worshippers in Baghdad.

U.S. officials have said violence has dropped by nearly 90 percent since the bloodiest days of 2006 and 2007, when Shiite-Sunni fighting pushed the country to the bring of all-out sectarian civil war.

Last month’s provincial elections, which were held without major violence, encouraged many Iraqis that the country was on the path to stability — which would allow the U.S. to withdraw its 144,000-strong military force.

President Barack Obama, who promised in the campaign to remove all combat troops within 16 months, is studying plans to shift military resources from Iraq to Afghanistan, where a resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida have threatened the U.S.-backed government.

But U.S. commanders have repeatedly warned that security in Iraq remains fragile because al-Qaida and other threat groups have not been completely defeated. Iraq’s major religious and ethnic groups have not reached power-sharing agreements to ensure a lasting peace.

Even though violence has fallen off, the number of female suicide bombers in Iraq has been growing. Last year, they attempted or successfully carried out 32 attacks, compared with eight in 2007, according to U.S. military figures.

Iraqi authorities lack enough policewomen to search most women at sensitive sites. Women’s loose-fitting garments make it easier to conceal explosives.

Last month, police arrested a middle-aged woman, Samira Ahmed Jassim, for allegedly recruiting female suicide bombers. She told The Associated Press in a prison interview of a plot in which young women were raped and then persuaded to carry out suicide attacks to reclaim their honor.

Pilgrims will be celebrating Monday’s end of 40 days of mourning that follow Ashoura, the anniversary of the seventh-century death of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Hussein.

He was killed in a battle near Karbala for the leadership of the nascent Muslim nation following Muhammad’s death in 632. His death led to the split between Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

More on   Iraq   |  Ashoura

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Suicide bomb kills at least 40 in Iraq

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