A roadside bomb killed four Shiite pilgrims and wounded 15 south of Baghdad Monday in at least the third fatal attack on people traveling to one of their sect’s most sacred gatherings, officials said.
The death toll rose from 40 to 56 from a suicide bombing Sunday — one of Iraq’s deadliest attacks this year.
In eastern Baghdad, another roadside bombing wounded three pilgrims. A second bomb that went off a few minutes later about 70 yards away wounded a traffic policeman riding to the scene on his motorcycle.
The suicide bomber went after travelers enjoying tea and refreshments Sunday in a tent near Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad. The blast killed at least 56 people and wounded 68, according to police and Babil health department director Dr. Mahmoud Abdul-Rida, driving the total number of pilgrims to 63 in two days.
Extremists had attacked another group of pilgrims with guns and grenades hours earlier in the predominantly Sunni Baghdad neighborhood of Dora, killing three and wounding 49, Iraqi military spokesman Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta said. He said the extremists fired from a mosque at the pilgrims and that a counterattack killed five of them, while two were captured.
U.S. and Iraqi forces have increased the number of checkpoints and imposed car bans and other measures in major Shiite cities to protect the worshippers traveling to Karbala, the burial site of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in a seventh-century battle nearby and became one of Shiite Islam’s most revered figures. Ceremonies will culminate in Karbala Wednesday to commemorate the end of the 40-day mourning period following the anniversary of his death
Major Shiite events have frequently been targeted in the past by suspected Sunni insurgents led by al-Qaida in Iraq in their drive to stoke sectarian violence.
Recent commemorations — including the Ashoura festival in mid-January to mark Imam Hussein’s death — have passed without major bloodshed amid an overall decline in violence across Iraq.
But the pilgrims who walk for days to reach the shrine of Hussein are vulnerable despite the increased security.
Suicide attacks and car bombings are frequently blamed on al-Qaida in Iraq, but U.S. Col. Tom James, commander of the 4th Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, which is responsible for the area around Sunday’s attack, said it was too early to say who was behind that bombing.
Sunni leaders denounced the bombing, with hard-line politician Adnan al-Dulaimi’s bloc blaming it on foreigners “aiming to create sectarian strife and to destabilize the country.”
In other violence Monday:
• A suicide bomber in a wheelchair talked his way into the city’s operations center and blew himself up, killing the deputy commander, Abdul Jabbar Rabeia, according to police and witnesses who also spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to release the information. Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, is the site of the golden domed Askariya mosque — a Shiite shrine that was bombed two years ago, sparking waves of sectarian violence.
• Gunmen opened fire on a police convoy in the northwestern city of Mosul, which the U.S. military has said is the last urban stronghold of al-Qaida in Iraq. Four officers were killed in the attack, police said.
(Associated Press writers Bushra Juhi and Hamid Ahmed contributed to this report.)