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Bomb strikes pilgrims in Iraq for 3rd straight day

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[August 16, 2008]  BAGHDAD (AP) -- A car bomb exploded Saturday as Shiite pilgrims were boarding minibuses in Baghdad, killing at least six people, officials said. It was the third consecutive day that extremists targeted travelers en route to the holy city of Karbala.

Despite the violence, hundreds of thousands of worshippers streamed toward the twin golden domed mosques amid tight security in the city south of Baghdad. Men and women filed through separate metal gates to be searched.

The explosives-laden car blew up about 9 a.m. near minibuses assembled to pick up pilgrims in Baghdad's mainly Shiite district of Shaab.

It was the latest in a series of bombings targeting Shiites heading to Karbala for a major religious festival that culminates this weekend. The deadliest was a female suicide bombing on Thursday that killed at least 18 pilgrims resting on the side of the road south of Baghdad.

A passenger van packed with explosives also blew up Friday night at a bus station in Balad, north of Baghdad where Shiite pilgrims had stopped for the night, killing four people and wounding dozens, U.S. and Iraqi officials said.

The attacks have raised concern that extremists were seeking to re-ignite the firestorm of sectarian massacres that plunged Iraq to the brink of civil war two years ago before thousands of American reinforcements were rushed to the country.

U.S.-backed Iraqi troops have stepped up security measures for the pilgrimage, but travelers remain vulnerable on the road.

In Karbala, women in flowing black robes were searched by female guards at a separate checkpoint from the men. Iraqi security forces were taking no chances amid warnings that insurgents are increasingly using women to stage attacks - women can more easily hide explosives under their abayas and men are reluctant to search them.

AP Television News video showed Iraqi security forces picking through plastic bags as men in T-shirts waited patiently.

Posters of Shiite religious leaders were confiscated for fear they might provoke attacks by followers of rival clerics, and cell phones were banned because they could be used to trigger bombs.

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A no-fly zone was enforced over the city, while police cars and ambulances roamed the streets. City officials set up dozens of tents around the city to provide food, water and emergency medical care.

Dozens of army and police snipers could be seen on buildings throughout the city looking for signs of trouble.

The Shiite festival, Shabaniyah, celebrates the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th Shiite imam, who disappeared in the ninth century. Devout Shiites call him the Hidden Imam and believe he will return to restore peace and harmony.

No group has claimed responsibility for the pilgrim attacks. Attacks on Shiite civilians - especially during Shiite religious festivals - have been the hallmark of Sunni extremists, including al-Qaida in Iraq.


Last year, Shabaniyah celebrations were tarnished when armed clashes broke out between followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and security forces controlled by rival Shiite groups.

Soon afterward, al-Sadr declared a cease-fire, in large part because of the backlash provoked among Shiites by his followers' role in the Shabaniyah clashes.

[Associated Press; By SINAN SALAHEDDIN]

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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