BAGHDAD – A woman hiding among Iranian pilgrims with a bomb strapped under her black robe killed more than three dozen people Sunday outside a Baghdad mosque during ceremonies commemorating the death of one of Shiite Islam's most revered saints.
The suicide attack, the most recent in a series that has killed more than 60 people in less that a week, was the latest to mar the transfer of many security responsibilities from the U.S. military to Iraqi forces.
Iraqi security forces have deployed thousands of troops in Baghdad and in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, just south of the capital, to safeguard against attacks during the ceremonies. Attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq, Sunni insurgents and even a Shiite cult have killed hundreds of people in recent years.
The attack in Baghdad's northern Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah, which wounded at least 72 people, comes two days after a suicide bomber slipped into a luncheon at a tribal leader's home south of Baghdad and killed at least 23 people. More than a dozen other people have died in other attacks since New Year's Day.
The Iraqi military held parades to mark the anniversary of its founding 88 years ago and to celebrate a security agreement with the United States that went into effect on Jan. 1. The agreement replaced a U.N. mandate that allowed the U.S. and other foreign troops to operate in Iraq.
Under the new agreement, U.S. troops will no longer conduct unilateral operations and will act only in concert with Iraqi forces. The must also leave major Iraqi cities by June and withdraw all troops by the end of 2011.
In another sign of the transition in authority, the U.S. military on Sunday handed over control in Diyala Province to about 9,000 Sons of Iraq, a predominantly Sunni group of former insurgents and tribesmen whose revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq gave a significant boost to security in the turbulent province and helped turned the tide in the war against the terror group.
The United States paid the group's estimated 90,000 members countrywide about $300 a month. Eventually, the members are to be either integrated into the Iraqi military and police, or provided civilian jobs and vocational training.
Under the phased handover, which began last year in Baghdad, Iraqi authorities will continue that pay and education strategy.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told Iraqi army troops during a parade marking Army Day that "the Iraqi army has gained the trust of government and Iraqi people as the army of all Iraqis." The military parade, which included recently purchased U.S. military equipment and armored vehicles, was the first since the U.S.-Iraq agreement went into effect on Jan. 1.
Just as the parade took place around noon, hundreds of worshippers had gathered in Kazimiyah just a few miles to the north, home to the shrine of Imam Mousa al-Kazim, one of the holiest men in Shiite Islam.
The suicide bomber was among a group of Iranian pilgrims and she blew herself up just outside the gates of the mosque, a large building graced by four minarets. The office of Iraqi army spokesman Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi confirmed a woman wearing an explosives vest was responsible.
Iraqi army and police put the death toll at 38, although the Prime Minister's National Operations Center said it was 36. Conflicting reports on the number of dead and wounded are common in Iraq in the chaotic aftermath of attacks.
At least one report from the Health Ministry said the dead included 17 Iranian pilgrims, seven of them women. There were also seven Iraqi women killed by the blast, which sent shrapnel hurtling across the crowded square.
"I saw many dead pilgrims on the ground after the explosion all covered in blood, some of them Iranians," one unidentified witness told Associated Press Television News.
Thousands of pilgrims from predominantly Shiite Iran visit during Ashura, celebrated on Jan. 7 this year. The evening before the explosion, thousands of men marched through the streets of Kazimiyah rhythmically beating their chests with bare hands and slashing their shoulders with iron chains, part of ceremonies leading up to the anniversary of 7th-century death of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein.
He was killed in a battle on the plains of Karbala near the Euphrates River. The battle, which was part of the dispute over the religion's leadership that began after Muhammad's death, was a key event in Islam's split into the majority Sunni and minority Shiite branches.
The Iraqi police and army have deployed thousands of forces to safeguard worshippers, mostly those heading to Karbala south of Baghdad. The city is home to the golden-domed mosques of Imam Hussein and his half-brother Imam Abbas. Hundreds of thousands are expected to pour into the city Tuesday and Wednesday night for the pinnacle of the pilgrimage.
Sunday's suicide attack bore all the hallmarks of the Sunni terror group al-Qaida in Iraq, which has killed hundreds of people in bombings against Ashura pilgrims in recent years. U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. general in Iraq, blamed the group for the attack as well as a Friday suicide bombing that killed at least 23.
"These horrific attacks, along with the December 11 suicide bombing in Kirkuk, demonstrate that despite the great progress we have made. Al-Qaida in Iraq remains a lethal and dangerous threat to innocent men, women and children of all faiths and groups," Odierno and Crocker said in a joint statement. The bombing in the northern city of Kirkuk killed 55.
Other Islamic extremist groups also have used Ashura to stage bloody attacks against Shiites.