BAGHDAD (Reuters) - In a second day of major bloodshed in Iraq, two female suicide bombers blew themselves up outside a Shi‘ite Muslim shrine in Baghdad on Friday, killing 60 people, police said.
The attack was the deadliest single incident in Iraq since a truck bomb in Baghdad killed 63 people on June 17 last year. The two-day death toll of at least 150 raises concerns that a recent decline in violence may have been only a temporary lull.
At least 125 people were wounded in the blasts, which took place within minutes of one another at the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine in the Shi‘ite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, police said. Many of the dead and wounded were Iranian Shi‘ite pilgrims.
Police said the attackers approached separate gates to the shrine, which contains the tombs of two important holy men, or imams, and has been a frequent target of Sunni Islamist extremists who consider Shi‘ite Muslims to be heretics.
“They used sidestreets to get there and this enabled them to avoid checkpoints. They blew themselves up in the crowd,” Major-General Jihad al-Jabiri, head of an Interior Ministry unit that investigates explosions, told Reuters Television.
He said the attackers placed two leather bags full of explosives among crowds flocking around the gates on Friday, the Muslim holy day. They were detonated by grenades whose pull rings were attached to strings and yanked from a short distance away.
Earlier reports that the suicide bombers were wearing explosive vests were not accurate, Jabiri said.
In a street leading to the shrine, workers afterwards swept up waves of glass from shattered shop windows.
“My message to the filthy hands behind this cruel attack is they will not stop us from loving the descendants of the prophet (Mohammed) and they will not stop us from showing devotion,” one survivor said from his hospital bed.
The Kadhimiya blasts followed two suicide bombs on Thursday, one in Baghdad and the other in the northeastern province of Diyala, in which a total of at least 89 people died.
Most of the 57 dead in Diyala were Iranians, who have flocked to Iraq’s Shi‘ite holy sites in the millions since Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein was ousted in the 2003 invasion.
“Some are trying to weaken the deep historical and growing ties between the two nations of Iran and Iraq and to justify the illegitimate presence of foreigners with the continuation of insecurity in this country and in the region,” Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi as saying.
While violence has fallen sharply in Iraq in the past year, insurgent groups like al Qaeda still carry out frequent attacks. Suicide bombings are a hallmark of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda.
The latest attacks coincide with growing fears of a resurgence in violence as U.S. combat troops prepare to pull out of Iraqi cities in June, ahead of a full withdrawal by the end of 2011, and amid doubts over the effectiveness of Iraqi forces.
A national election at the end of the year has also heightened apprehensions as political parties and armed groups jostle for dominance of the oil-producing nation.
Analysts say the sectarian divide that caused Shi‘ites and Sunnis to slaughter each other remains, while Kurd-Arab tensions over disputed lands could also provoke renewed conflict.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office set up a commission to investigate Friday’s explosions and ordered the detention of two Iraqi commanders responsible for securing the shrine.
Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani blamed al Qaeda.
“It’s not a security failure because they aren’t targeting government or security facilities. They are targeting civilians. That is proof of how weak they are,” Bolani told Reuters.
General Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander in Iraq, said the last two days had been tragic for Iraqis.
“We will assist the government of Iraq in going after these networks and individuals who continue to conduct these attacks,” Odierno told CNN. “I believe the Iraqi people ... will not let this stand in their way of moving forward.”
On Thursday, Iraqi authorities said they arrested the leader of an al Qaeda-linked insurgent group. But neither they nor the U.S. military were able to confirm on Friday that the person was in fact Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the purported head of a group called the Islamic State of Iraq.
Additional reporting by Washington bureau and Zahra Hosseinian in Tehran; writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Charles Dick