Deaths mount in Baghdad after attack on Shiite pilgrims

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A suicide bomber blew himself up amidst a group of Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad, killing at least 73 people including two journalists, on the eve of the anniversary of the death of one of their imams, police and medics told Agence France-Presse.

Iraq is home to some of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, and millions of pilgrims visit the country each year.

But crowds of pilgrims thronging the roads are frequently targeted by Sunni militants including those linked to al-Qaeda, who consider Shiites to be apostates, reported AFP.

Meanwhile, gunmen killed two Iraqi journalists in the country’s north on Saturday, as other violence including a suicide bombing at a cafe left 20 people dead, officials said.

Violence has reached a level unseen since 2008, and there are fears Iraq may relapse into the kind of intense Sunni-Shiite bloodshed that peaked in 2006-2007 and killed tens of thousands of people.

Sharqiya television channel said two of its journalists - correspondent Mohammed Karim al-Badrani and cameraman Mohammed Ghanem - were “assassinated” in the city of Mosul.

A police officer and a doctor confirmed the killings, saying the two journalists were shot dead.

The pair’s reports on security forces and officials in Mosul brought death threats from militant groups opposed to the government, a Sharqiya journalist told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Iraq has come in for repeated criticism over shortcomings in media freedom.

“Many Iraqi journalists are routinely exposed to threats, murder attempts, attacks, difficulties obtaining permission, denial of access, confiscation of equipment and so on,” media rights watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said earlier this year.

Journalists with the appropriate government authorization are routinely barred from approaching the sites of attacks and prevented from otherwise freely reporting in Baghdad, while photo and video cameras are often viewed with suspicion by security forces.

Later on Saturday, a suicide bomber struck a cafe in the town of Balad, north of Baghdad, killing 12 people and wounding 25, police and a doctor said.

The same cafe was blasted by a suicide bomber in August, when 16 people were killed.

Militants have carried out a number of attacks on cafes in Iraq in recent months, and have also targeted other places where crowds gather, including mosques, football fields, funerals and markets.

In Muqdadiyah, a town northeast of Baghdad that is hit by frequent bombings and shootings, a roadside bomb exploded near a car, killing one person and wounding three.

And the Iraqi defense ministry said that security forces killed five militants in clashes south of the town of Baiji, and two more in the northern province of Nineveh.

Iraqi forces have carried out wide-ranging operations against militants for more than two months, but they have yet to succeed in curbing the attacks plaguing the country.

With the latest violence, more than 80 people have been killed in attacks so far this month, and over 4,750 since the beginning of the year, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.

(With Reuters and AFP)