A suicide bomber blew himself up next to a large group of Shiite Muslims on a pilgrimage Thursday, one in a series of apparently coordinated sectarian attacks that killed at least 72 people in southern Iraq and in Baghdad.
Security officials said the bombings in two Shiite districts of Baghdad and near Nasiriyah, about 200 miles southeast of the capital, also injured at least 147 people. It was the highest one-day death toll since U.S. troops withdrew from Iraq last month and appeared to be deadliest single day of violence in the country in more than a year.
The bombings coincided with a political stand-off between Shiite and Sunni leaders that continued into its third week. A majority of the Sunni-supported political bloc Iraqiya boycotted parliamentary proceedings Thursday. And while Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, gave another conciliatory speech stressing harmony, his critics said that behind the scenes Maliki is trying to dissolve a political framework established under U.S. guidance that was designed to share power among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds.
“They’re busy doing the wrong things,” said parliament member Mahmoud Othman, an independent Kurd who said he was including all parties and sects in his critique. “They’re busy with conflict, day and night, and don’t have time for security.”
Terrorists are taking advantage of the vacuum, Othman said, and are willing to attack both Shiite and Sunni civilians to incite militias sympathetic to either side. “They want to create an armed, sectarian conflict.”
The bombing in southern Iraq targeted Shiites who were on the road to the holy city of Karbala to honor a venerated Shiite martyr, Imam Hussein. At least 48 people were killed in the suicide attack and more than 80 others were wounded, according to a provincial security chief.
The bombing followed a series of blasts in two Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad that left at least 24 people dead and 65 wounded, officials said.
Just before the bombing of the pilgrims near Nasiriyah, an Iraqi army officer spotted the assailant and tried to intervene, said the security chief, Sajad al-Asadi. The officer attempted to wrap his arms around the bomber and tackle him before he could detonate his explosives. The officer was killed in the bombing, Asadi said.
Asadi said many of those injured in the bombing are in serious or critical condition, and he expects the death toll to rise.
“We are blaming al-Qaeda,” Asadi said, although no group immediately claimed responsibility for the attacks. “This is al-Qaeda’s tactic to target Shiite pilgrims.”
Lt. Col. Joel Rayburn, an Iraq analyst at the National Defense University who earlier served as a U.S. intelligence officer in Iraq, said the attack on the pilgrims could unleash a series of unsettling reactions. It could embarrass Maliki’s government, which has staked its reputation on protecting such pilgrimages. If the attacks continue, that could spark a reemergence of the Shiite Mahdi Army, a militia created by firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to protect Shiites when the government appeared unable to do so.
“And there won’t be anything Maliki can say or do against it,” said Rayburn, stressing he was expressing his opinions and not those of the Defense University.
Earlier Thursday in Baghdad, an explosives-laden motorcycle blew up near a group of day laborers in Sadr City, a sprawling Shiite slum named for Sadr’s father, a senior cleric who was assassinated during the rule of Saddam Hussein.
Two more bombs were detonated simultaneously near a hospital in the same area, according to Ministry of Interior officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. A total of nine people were killed and 35 injured in those blasts, officials said.
Ninety minutes later, two car bombs exploded near Aruba Square in the Kadhimiyah district of northern Baghdad, killing 15 and injuring 31, according to initial reports.
Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, the Baghdad operations command spokesman, told government-run al-Iraqiya television that the blasts targeted innocent civilians. He warned residents that bombings often come in pairs.
“We advise citizens not to gather if they hear the first explosion,” Atta said.
On Dec. 22, four days after the last U.S. troops departed, at least 15 bombs were set off during a two hour period, killing at least 65 people. The Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaeda-affiliated group, later claimed responsibility.
In an e-mailed statement, Ali Hadi al-Moussawi, a spokesman for Prime Minister Maliki, said terrorists are trying to ignite a sectarian war between Shiites and Sunnis.
“That is why you see them attack such religious symbols like the Shiite practice of pilgrimage to Imam Hussein” in Karbala, Moussawi said.
He said the attacks did not expose major failures in security because the pilgrims were out in the open, traveling by the thousands. But the attacks may indicate a need for better intelligence gathering, Moussawi said
Moussawi also accused leaders of the Iraqiya bloc of issuing irresponsible statements that aggravate sectarian tensions.
Haider al-Mulla, a spokesman for Iraqiya, charged earlier that Maliki is intent on becoming a dictator.
“Rather than sharing power, he wishes to create turbulence between political parties of Iraq for the purpose of maintaining and consolidating his own power,” Mulla said.
Special correspondents Aziz Alwan and Asaad Majeed contributed to this report.