Baghdad – Insurgents mounted another vicious attack against Iraq’s Shiites on Saturday, as an explosion ripped through a group of pilgrims in the southern city of Basra who were on their way to a mosque to commemorate one of their holiest holidays.
The explosion detonated in a tent where pilgrims were being fed around 8:30 a.m. in the southern city of Basra, killing 53, including several police officers at a nearby checkpoint, and wounding at least 137, local officials said.
There were conflicting reports, though, about what caused the explosion. Some officials said it was from a roadside bomb while others blamed it on a suicide bomber.
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The pilgrims were traveling to a mosque in the city of Zubayr, just west of Basra, for the last day of Arbaeen, the solemn holiday at the end of the 40-day mourning period for the death of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.
Most Shiites typically make pilgrimages to the city of Karbala, where Imam Hussein ibn Ali is buried and millions from Iraq and other Muslim countries visit for the holiday. But those in southern Iraq who do not have the stamina or time to march to Karbala make a shorter trip to the Khatwa mosque, a Shiite holy site in Zubayr.
During the last 10 days, insurgents have unleashed a string of attacks on Shiites as they have made pilgrimages leading up to Arbaeen in an apparent attempt to stir sectarian violence amid a monthlong political crisis that has roiled tensions between the country’s Shiite and Sunni politicians.
So far, though, the attacks do not appear to have turned the political tensions into violence between the sects on the streets. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but they appear similar to others conducted by Al Qaeda in Iraq against pilgrims in previous years. Al Qaeda in Iraq believes the Iraqi government is run by apostates and it hopes to topple the government by plunging the country back into a sectarian war, like the one that engulfed the country a few years ago.
“We were only going to visit the mosque,” Samir Khadim, 47, of Basra, said. “What crime did we commit that made them want to kill us? The first thing I thought about when I fell on the ground was my family. The bombings will never stop us from celebrating. We have been doing this for years and will never stop.”
Saturday’s attack was similar to another one mounted by insurgents on Jan. 5. That day, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest amid a crowd of pilgrims close to a security checkpoint near the city of Nasiriya, just north of Basra, killing 44 and wounding dozens.
In response to the attacks, the Iraqi government increased security for the pilgrims, deploying tens of thousands of security officers throughout the southern part of the country and Karbala.
“We made a security plan two days ago to protect the pilgrims and we raided a number of houses in the area and found a number of explosive devices and weapons,” said Ali Ghanim, the head of the security committee for the Basra provincial council.
Mr. Ghanim said that the attack on Saturday was from a suicide bomber, a much more difficult type of attack to defeat. “There was a man who was holding a box and giving food to people and one of our security officers found him suspicious and went to search the box and the man blew himself up,” he said.
Mansour al-Tamemi, a member of Parliament from Basra, said that protecting the pilgrims is difficult because they walk such long distances.
“There’s a weakness in the intelligence and the security forces and they do not get information to pre-emptively stop attacks,” he said.
“The main goal of these attacks is igniting the sectarian violence,” he said. “But I don’t think the sectarian violence will return because people know what the insurgents are trying to do.”
Duraid Adnan and Zaid Thaker contributed reporting from Baghdad. An employee for The New York Times contributed reporting from Basra.