BAGHDAD — As Shiite Muslim pilgrims made their way to a shrine in Baghdad on Sunday to mark one of the sect's most important holidays, a female suicide bomber detonated her explosives at a crowded checkpoint, killing as many as 38 people and wounding 72, police said.
It was one of the capital's worst attacks in months and the second major bombing in the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya in nine days. On Dec. 27, a minibus exploded, killing 24 people.
Violence in Iraq has declined significantly, but suicide attacks remain a threat. U.S. military officials have warned that January could be particularly violent, with provincial elections Jan. 31. Insurgents also might try to assert themselves as the U.S. hands over military control to Iraqis. Withdrawal of all American troops is planned by the end of 2011.
On Sunday, witnesses described a chaotic scene of dozens of dead and injured men, women and children, most of them on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Musa al Kadhim, considered the seventh imam of the Shiite sect. Thousands of pilgrims are visiting the holy site to mark Ashura, the anniversary of the battlefield death in 680 of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad.
Ashura, which falls on Wednesday this year, is a defining event in the Shiite faith. Militants have targeted Kadhimiya repeatedly because of its significance to Iraq's Shiite majority.
At least 17 pilgrims from Iran, which also has a Shiite majority, were among the victims Sunday, police said.
"I saw the people lying on the ground," said Assad, who declined to give his last name. "They were like sheep more than human. Is that acceptable? Oh, my God."
Heider abu Hussein, 32, who owns a bookstore near the site, said the bomber exploded from the middle of a crowd, sending people and body parts flying everywhere.
"Can anyone help us? Can anyone help us?" Hussein's friend Mohammed yelled into the crowd. "We need help here!"
The friends began carrying people to safety. Hussein spotted an infant, maybe 2 months old, lying on the ground and crying.
"Then I saw his mother," Hussein said. "She was moving in pain. She started to point at me. She couldn't speak. In her gesture, she was telling me to give her baby back. Then she collapsed. I thought she was dead."
The baby began vomiting blood and was bleeding from the stomach, where he had been struck by shrapnel. At a hospital, the friends learned that the baby's mother was alive but seriously injured.
Relatives were able to take care of the baby, Hussein said.
As police quickly cleared the scene and washed away the blood, angry residents criticized officials.
"The security procedures absolutely are not good," said Abu Zainab, 61, who carried injured people from the scene in handcarts. "The narrow streets of Kadhimiya are not secured. Anyone can enter the city easily."
Abu Zainab said he tried to get a police officer to help him immediately after the bombing but the officer refused, saying he had not been given such orders.
"I took off my shoes and I hit him with it," Abu Zainab said.
Some blamed lax checkpoints, reporting that they had seen officers and soldiers playing with their cellphones. Residents said the military had set up a couple of main checkpoints but several other entrances were easy to pass through.
"Every year, the people of Kadhimiya take the responsibility of protecting the holy city," said Heider Fahad, 22, owner of a nearby cellphone shop. "But this year, the army and the police did not let the civilians participate in this searching. There are a lot of entrances, and someone who wants to commit such activities can enter the holy city. It was a breach."
Qassim Atta, an army spokesman in Baghdad, said in a statement that security procedures in Kadhimiya were being followed. The senior U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker issued a statement blaming the insurgent group Al Qaeda in Iraq for the attack and warning that the group remained a threat.
Ali Adeeb, a Shiite lawmaker with Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party, called for tighter security in Baghdad but denied that hard-line Sunni groups were making a comeback.
"Security has improved, but there was some negligence and carelessness by the security leadership," Adeeb said.
Times staff writers Ali Hameed and Ned Parker in Baghdad, special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.