BAGHDAD - Bombs hit Shiite pilgrims in Baghdad and a central Iraqi city yesterday, killing at least 27 people and wounding scores, in the latest attack in the lead-up to Ashoura, the sect's most solemn annual rite.
The blasts raised fears of more bloodshed as hundreds of thousands of Shiites head to the holy city of Karbala in central Iraq for ceremonies Sunday to mark the climax of the religious observance.
Ashoura's 10 days of mourning are in remembrance of the killing of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, in an A.D. 680 battle that sealed the split between Shiites and Sunnis.
Authorities said two bombs killed at least 13 people and wounded 74 in Hillah, the capital of Babil province in central Iraq, which is 60 miles south of Baghdad. The explosions hit a busy bus terminal where Shiite pilgrims had gathered.
Shoes lay in puddles of blood as shell-shocked survivors sat nearby.
"A bomb exploded there, and a car bomb exploded here," said witness Ali Hussein.
Hours later, a bomb targeting a funeral in Baghdad killed nine and wounded 33 in a Shiite neighborhood, police and hospital officials said, speaking anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to media.
It was unclear if the attackers thought they were targeting an Ashoura procession, when devout Shiites beat themselves with swords and other instruments to show their devotion and mourning for Imam Hussein.
Also in Baghdad, another bomb killed five Shiite pilgrims and wounded 18 on their way to Karbala, police and hospital officials said.
Although Ashoura is essentially an expression of religious grief, it has also become a demonstration of power by Iraq's majority Shiites.
Its observance was forbidden by former dictator Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime. After he was ousted and a Shiite-led government came to power, pilgrims turned out en masse to mark the occasion, defying the threat of insurgent attacks.
People from around southern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shiite, make up the bulk of pilgrims traveling to Karbala. In Karbala itself, police said an explosion hurt eight pilgrims about a mile from the al-Hussein holy shrine.
In Hillah, the bombs went off 15 minutes apart, with the second blast catching emergency workers and civilians responding to the first, said police Maj. Muthana Khalid.
Clerics from both sides of the divide denounced the attempts to reignite the sectarian hatred that shook the country two years ago.
"We expect al-Qaeda will exploit the religious occasion of Ashoura and try to ignite the sectarian tensions," said Sheik Salah al-Obaidi, the spokesman of the conservative Shiite Sadr movement, a political party led by an anti-American cleric.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq is predominantly Sunni.
Sheik Hameed Maroof al-Obaidi, a Sunni imam in northern Baghdad, said sectarianism should be dismissed and called on Muslims to "coexist even with Jews and Christians because our prophet, Muhammad, did that."