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Violence against pilgrims continues in Iraq as suicide bomber kills 50 in Basra

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A suicide bomber disguised as a policeman killed at least 50 people in an attack that targeted Shiite Muslim pilgrims passing through a checkpoint in Iraq’s southern city of Basra on Saturday, police said.

“A terrorist wearing a police uniform and carrying fake police I.D. managed to reach a police checkpoint and blew himself up among police and pilgrims,” said a police official at the scene of the bombing.

Riyadh Abdulamir, head of the health department in Basra province, said 50 people were killed and 100 wounded in the 9:00 am (0600 GMT) attack just west of Basra city.

Women and children were among the casualties, he said, but did not give further details.

The attacker, who had been distributing food to pilgrims walking to the Khutwa Imam Ali, a site on the outskirts of Basra venerated by believers for its associations with one of the key figures of their faith, blew himself up near a police checkpoint.

Arbaeen has been a frequent target of militants since the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.

Scores of people have been killed in attacks on pilgrims in the last few weeks, including a suicide bombing which killed at least 70 people.

Many of the attacks on pilgrims have used methods such as suicide bombings that are the signature of Iraq’s al-Qaeda affiliate.

Attacks targeting Shiites have also killed dozens of people since Shiite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government issued an arrest warrant for a Sunni vice president, triggering a political crisis that risks scuttling a power-sharing agreement.

Attacks had ebbed since the height of sectarian slaughter in 2006-2007 when thousands were killed in intercommunal violence among Shiite and Sunni. But the withdrawal of the last American troops in December has fanned worries of a spike in violence.

Millions throng Karbala

Shiite Muslims from across Iraq and the world thronged the shrine city of Karbala on Saturday for the conclusion of Arbaeen mourning rituals amid tight security for fear of insurgent attacks.

Officials said some 15 million pilgrims will have passed through Karbala by the end of the commemorations, braving the threat of deadly violence targeting the Shiite community that has killed dozens in recent weeks.

Arbaeen marks 40 days after the Ashura anniversary commemorating the slaying of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's most revered figures, by the armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD.

In recent days, waves of mourners have overflowed Hussein's shrine in Karbala, demonstrating their guilt and remorse for not defending him by beating their heads and chests in rituals of self-flagellation.

“I have been walking for 12 days,” said Adil Salim, a devotee from Basra. “Despite the threats and the exhaustion, we insist on taking part in these commemorations.”

“We will never stop, no matter what the terrorists do.”

Sad songs blared from loudspeakers throughout the city and black flags fluttered alongside pictures of Hussein and his half-brother Imam Abbas, both of whom are buried in the city.

Karbala provincial governor Amal al-Din al-Har said he expected that some 15 million pilgrims will have visited the shrine city in the two weeks running to Arbaeen's climax on Saturday.

Included in that figure, he said, were around 200,000 devotees from outside the country.

“All services are going smoothly,” he told AFP, but noted that the province’s electricity and transportation networks were overwhelmed by the sheer number of pilgrims.

Some 35,000 police officers and soldiers were handling security around the city, 110 kilometers (70 miles) south of Baghdad, and eponymous province as Shiite pilgrims carried out their traditional walk to Karbala.

High security alert

Iraq’s security forces have also deployed 500 policewomen to assist in checkpoint searches, as well as sonar detectors and sniffer dogs, according to Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanimi, who commands forces in five provinces across central Iraq, of which Karbala is one.

He said they have so far arrested 60 insurgents they alleged were planning attacks during the pilgrimage, and defused 14 roadside bombs.

Karbala itself has not suffered any attacks during Arbaeen rituals, but bomb attacks nationwide have targeted Iraq’s majority Shiite community with assaults maiming Baghdad and south Iraq.

The seventh century battle near Karbala is at the heart of the historical division between Islam’s Sunni and Shiite sects, a split that fuelled sectarian violence between Iraq’s majority Shiite and smaller Sunni population since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Shiite pilgrims visiting Karbala are regularly targeted in attacks by Sunni extremists.

This year is the first time Iraqi troops have been solely charged with security for Arbaeen since the U.S.-led invasion of 2003. American troops, who previously helped with surveillance and reconnaissance, completed their withdrawal from Iraq last month.

Now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime barred the vast majority of Ashura and Arbaeen commemorations.

Shiites make up around 15 percent of Muslims worldwide. They represent the majority populations in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain and form significant communities in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan, India and Saudi Arabia.