KARBALA // Two suicide bombers detonated vehicles packed with explosives on the outskirts of the holy Shiite shrine city of Karbala on Thursday killing at least 51 people, a top official said, on a day of attacks across the country.
As many as 183 others were wounded in the two attacks, which occurred about 20 minutes apart at separate entrances to the city, 110 kilometres south of Baghdad, said the head of Karbala provincial council, Mohammed Hamid al Mussawi.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the bombings bore the hallmark of al-Qaida and other Sunni-dominated extremist groups that frequently target Shiite pilgrimages in hopes of re-igniting sectarian violence that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war just a few years ago.
The first attack struck at Karbala's northern outskirts at around 3pm, Mr Mussawi said, with the second explosion occurring at around 3.20pm around 15 kilometres (nine miles) south of the city.
More than a million pilgrims are expected to visit Karbala in the coming days for ceremonies to commemorate Arbaeen, which marks 40 days since the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein in the 7th century. The grandson of the Prophet, he was killed in Karbala in a battle that sealed Islam's historic Sunni-Shiite split.
The attack comes amid a spike in violence in Iraq, which had been relatively calm after the prime minister, Nuri al Maliki, formed a new government in December, more than nine months after parliamentary elections.
A medical official at Karbala's main al Hussein General Hospital said that of the dead, four were children and 20 were women. He said 20 people were killed in a blast north of the city, while the remainder died in the second explosion.
Earlier today, a roadside bomb detonated among a crowd of Shiite pilgrims at the Al Rasheed vegetable market in southern Baghdad, killing one and wounding nine, while another such blast in a central Iraqi town killed one and injured three, an interior ministry official said
Soon after, a suicide bomber blew up a car filled with explosives at a police headquarters in the central city of Baquba, killing two policemen and a female journalist in the third attack on Iraqi security forces in three days.
The suicide bomber detonated his payload at around 10am, just 200 metres from the site of a large suicide car bomb against another security agency yesterday morning.
"I heard a massive blast and suddenly, there was a rain of shrapnel falling from the sky," said Murtada Aiseh, a 47-year-old local government employee who was in a nearby market with his wife and suffered head injuries.
"I woke up in the hospital and found my wife near my bed, she suffered injuries to her right hand."
The attack also left 30 people wounded, according to Ahmed Alwan, a doctor at Baquba hospital. An interior ministry official confirmed the toll.
The journalist, Wejdan Assad al Juburi, had been a reporter for the Iraq al Mustaqal (Independent Iraq) newspaper. A total of 255 journalists and media workers have been killed in Iraq since the US-led invasion in 2003, according to the Baghdad-based Journalism Freedoms Observatory.