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.
"As people gathered here, a powerful blast took place," said witness Ali Hussein. "A bomb exploded there and a car bomb exploded here."
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.
Pilgrims turn out en masse
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.
Among the dead in Hillah was provincial councilman and doctor Nima Jassim al-Bakri. He was driving to the attack site and was shot after failing to stop at a checkpoint, causing a guard to mistake him for an attacker, Khalid said.
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.
"We expect al-Qaida will exploit the religious occasion of Ashoura and try to ignite the sectarian tensions," said Sheik Salah al-Obaidi, the spokesman of the conservative Shiite Sadr movement, a political party led by an anti-American cleric. He said more bombings were expected.
Al-Qaida in Iraq is predominantly Sunni.
Sheik Hameed Maroof al-Obaidi, a Sunni imam in northern Baghdad, said sectarianism should be dismissed and called on Muslims to "coexist even with Jews and Christians because our prophet, Muhammad, did that." He asked for mercy for the victims and families.
Violence in Iraq has dramatically in the past two years, but insurgents still regularly target security forces and civilians. Many fear the U.S. military withdrawal will leave a security vacuum even though Iraqi authorities have assured citizens they are capable of safeguarding the country.
Karbala police spokesman Maj. Alaa Abbas said 25,000 additional security forces had been sent to the city, along with specialized vehicles and police dogs to detect explosives. Helicopters are also keeping watch from the skies.
Thursday's attacks underscored extremists' efforts to exploit security gaps, targeting relatively unprotected pilgrims traveling to Karbala even as authorities fortified the area in and around the city.
"The terrorists are using the most ugly ways to kill innocents and hit national unity," Abbas said.