BAGHDAD — A female suicide bomber who infiltrated a crowd of Shiite Muslim women and children making their pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala left 35 dead and 80 wounded Friday in the deadliest attack in Iraq this year, officials said.
The bombing occurred in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad, at a roadside rest area that served cake, tea and water to women and children, authorities said.
The incident marked the third day in a row that Shiite pilgrims were attacked. Officials are bracing for further violence as the pilgrimage to Karbala approaches its climax, the holy day of Arbaeen, on Monday.
The bomber had hidden an explosives belt beneath her abaya, the flowing black gown that many Iraqi women wear, police said. She reportedly had tried to pass through a checkpoint at Abu Jassim village, but failed. She then entered the crowd of women and children resting in a tent and detonated the bomb.
Many people were injured when they panicked and began stampeding from the scene. Most of the victims were women and children, officials said.
"This explosion does not frighten us," said Ali Abbas, 61, a retired government employee making the pilgrimage from Diyala province with his family.
"Four years of violence in Diyala didn't stop us from coming to visit Karbala, and neither will this," Abbas said.
Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims throughout Iraq have been traveling by foot, car and bus to Karbala for an annual gathering mourning the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in a 7th century battle in the city.
For days, roads leading to the city have been jammed with people making the pilgrimage, which was outlawed under the late former dictator Saddam Hussein. Highways are lined with colorful tents that offer free food and drink to pilgrims and blast religious music from speakers. The gathering spots, which often separate males and females, make easy targets for attackers.
Military and police checkpoints have been established almost every half-mile along the main pilgrim routes, and vehicles are subjected to random searches. But pedestrians, particularly women, are not generally subjected to intense scrutiny. In August, during another pilgrimage to Karbala, at least 17 people died when a woman entered a rest tent and detonated explosives. That attack took place in the same area as Friday's.
The violence appears to be the work of Sunni Muslim extremists intent on reigniting sectarian violence, authorities said. A spokesman for the Interior Ministry said the recent bombings "bore the imprint" of the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq.
Until recently, attacks had dropped to their lowest level in years, as security forces prepared for last month's provincial elections. That lull ended Wednesday when two car bombs exploded in a busy Baghdad bus terminal, killing 18. Many of the victims were Shiites who were waiting to take buses to Karbala.
On Thursday, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives belt packed with nails amid a crowd of Shiite worshipers in Karbala, leaving eight dead.
In other news Friday, gunmen killed an army brigadier general and his son in the west Baghdad neighborhood of Atibba after storming their home early in the morning.