A car smoulders after the twin suicide bombings targeting pilgrims entering… (Ahmed al-Husseini, Associated…)
Reporting from Baghdad — At least 56 people were killed Thursday in a pair of suicide car bombings that targeted pilgrims marching on foot into the Shiite Muslim shrine city of Karbala ahead of a major holiday.
The attacks in the lead-up to Arbaeen, a holiday honoring Shiite icon Imam Hussein, also wounded at least 189 people, said medical officials who provided the death toll.
The blasts horrified and angered members of the country's Shiite religious majority, many of whom are still scarred by memories of major bombings by Sunni extremists that devastated their community.
Politicians declared that the third major attack in as many days was a deliberate attempt to destabilize the national government and sabotage Iraq's plans to host the Arab League summit at the end of March. That event would be the culmination of Iraq's bid for acceptance among Sunni Arab states, which have viewed the country warily because of the ascendance of Shiites since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Just before 3 p.m., a flatbed truck packed with blankets and sheets for pilgrims arrived at a checkpoint at Karbala's northern edge and exploded as thousands poured into the city for the holiday, which falls on Tuesday.
The blast scattered corpses of pilgrims and Iraqi soldiers and police. Survivors praised Shiite religious icons even as they cursed Sunni extremists. "We will all sacrifice ourselves for Imam Hussein and his descendants — down with Wahhabis," they chanted.
Within 15 minutes, a Chevrolet Caprice rolled up at another checkpoint to Karbala and detonated explosives amid pilgrims, police and soldiers.
Ghassan Hashim, 40, said he was walking with his wife to visit the shrine to Hussein, martyred in the 7th century, so they could pray for a baby boy. Instead, he felt the force of the blast.
"I turned and saw my wife covered with blood and she lost her leg! I lost control and fainted," he said from a hospital, where he was treated for minor wounds. "I don't know where my wife is now. It was a mess and crowds were crying everywhere. It was like doomsday."
He added: "Curse on the Baathists.… Curse on the terrorists."
Baqir Bedhani, 45, from Baghdad, said he and others were walking toward the city when they heard a giant boom and saw flames shoot in the air.
"Things were flying, maybe flesh and shrapnel and clothes," he said.
Bedhani rushed to help the wounded and saw pools of blood and the bodies of women and children.
"Oh God, it was unbearable," he said. "I would like to tell those terrorists something: The more you kill us, the more we will do our holy rituals."
Iraqi lawmaker Falah Naquib warned that the nation was facing a new campaign by the militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq and unknown forces from outside the country.
"We should expect more of this in the next couple of months," he said. "It's a matter of destabilizing the security situation, and definitely there is a plan to cancel the Arab League meeting in Baghdad … and to weaken the government."
Militants have used the occasion of Arbaeen, which marks the 40th day of mourning after Hussein's death anniversary, to strike at Shiite pilgrims before. Last year, two suicide bombings at the eastern entrance to Karbala killed 43 people and injured more than 140.