BAGHDAD — A woman pretending to be a Shiite Muslim pilgrim en route to a religious festival blew herself up Thursday at a rest house catering to pilgrims and killed at least 20 other people, most of them women.
It was the worst of several attacks on Shiites walking to Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, and it raised the specter of more bloodshed as the pilgrimage route becomes crowded before the event Saturday.
The bombing also was the latest in a series of attacks carried out by women. A 15-year-old girl blew herself up Monday in Baqubah, northeast of Baghdad, killing at least one Iraqi police officer. The U.S. military said there had been about 30 suicide bombings by women this year, compared with fewer than 10 last year.
Iraqi and U.S. officials say Sunni Arab insurgents, finding it more difficult to recruit men, are turning to women, who generally face less scrutiny by security officers.
The latest attack occurred at the Hitteen rest house in Iskandariya, which is midway between Baghdad and Karbala and is a popular resting point for pilgrims. The Hitteen's yard was crowded with tents erected by pilgrims stopping for a break, and the grass was covered with women cooking and children playing, said Hameed Rubaie, who passed by minutes before the blast.
Rubaie, who left his Baghdad home at 4 a.m. to walk to Karbala, said he heard a large explosion.
"Behind me there was a big fireball. I was able to see the bodies of women and children," he said. "Everything was scattered on the roadside: pots thrown here and there, torn rugs. Blood was everywhere and fire was consuming everything."
Rubaie waited until police officers arrived and then continued on his way. "I had to leave," he said. "My heart was broken."
The attacker blew herself up amid the tents, said Ryad Gayim, who works at the rest house. He said the force of the explosion blew out windows in neighboring buildings and set tents afire.
At least 75 people were wounded. Police said the dead included 15 women.
The police chief of Babil province, where the attack occurred, said his requests for additional tents for women to be frisked for explosives had been ignored.
"We asked for more, but the minister [of interior] did not listen," said the chief, Maj. Gen. Fadhil Radam Sultani.
Sultani said there were only 12 female search tents along the pilgrimage route, despite the increased risk of female bombers.
The pilgrimage is for the Shabaniya festival, which commemorates the birth of the 12th Shiite imam, known as the Mahdi, who vanished in the 9th century. Shiites believe the Mahdi will one day return and bring world peace.
Shiite pilgrimages often are targets of Sunni insurgents. Earlier Thursday, Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta Moussawi, an Iraqi security spokesman, had announced measures designed to prevent bloodshed during the pilgrimage. They included a ban on pilgrims carrying weapons and a ban on flags bearing religious or political symbols.
At least one pilgrim and two Iraqi police officers were killed Thursday in two other attacks on the route. Both involved roadside bombs.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy announced that six sailors face court-martial on charges of assaulting Iraqi detainees at the U.S.-run Camp Bucca detention facility in southern Iraq. The assaults allegedly occurred May 14 and led to two of the detainees suffering "minor abrasions," a Navy statement said.
Eight other detainees were locked in a room without ventilation and subjected to "a riot control agent," such as pepper spray.
The courts-martial are expected to begin in the next month, the Navy said. It said seven other sailors were given nonjudicial punishments.
The Iraqi government confirmed that President Jalal Talabani had undergone heart surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and was "recovering and in the best of health." A statement from his office said doctors had discovered a heart valve problem while preparing Talabani for knee surgery and that the heart operation was performed this week.
Special correspondents in Babil province and Baghdad contributed to this report.