Five bomb attacks struck Shiite pilgrims yesterday during an important religious ritual for the Muslim sect, killing 21 people and wounding nearly 100 others, and revealing the enormous security challenges that still beset Iraq as the U.S. military leaves the country.
Shiite religious holidays such as the mourning period known as Ashoura are targeted every year by Sunni extremists and have become especially difficult tests for the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces, still struggling to protect their citizens.
The U.S. military is rapidly shipping troops and equipment out of the country before a Dec. 31 deadline to have all its forces out. Then the entire responsibility for the nation's security will rest with Iraq's leaders.
Further underscoring the shortfalls, assailants just a week ago were even able to get a car bomb into the heavily fortified Green Zone that is the government's headquarters in the capital and is home to many foreign embassies, prompting the U.S. mission to severely limit the movement of its staff inside the zone. Iraqi officials said that the bomb had been meant for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki but that he was not in the area at the time.
On Ashoura, the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who walk to the southern holy city of Karbala from around the country in a show of religious Shiite fervor present a particularly easy target for Sunni militants, who do not consider Shiites to be true Muslims.
After the fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime in 2003, Shiites regained the right to express their beliefs freely, and since then the annual commemorations have drawn huge crowds despite the threat.
In yesterday's first attack, a bomb exploded among Shiite pilgrims in Latifiyah, about 20 miles south of the capital, killing two of them and wounding three others, police said. A medical official confirmed the casualty toll.
Hours later, a car bomb exploded near a group of Shiite pilgrims in the town of Mahaweel as they were heading to Karbala, killing eight people and wounding about 56 other pilgrims, said police officials in Babil province.
Mahaweel is about 35 miles south of Baghdad.
Three more attacks against Shiite pilgrims in the capital killed 11 people and wounded 41 others, police said.