KERBALA // Two bombs tore into crowds of pilgrims in the holy Iraqi Shiite city of Kerbala on Monday, killing at least 12 and wounding dozens as hundreds of thousands of people streamed in for a religious rite, officials said.
The first bomb exploded in a car park on the outskirts of the city where pilgrims taking part in the annual Arbain event had parked their vehicles, killing between four and six people, according to the Iraqi deputy health minister, Khamis al Saad, and security officials. Mr al Saad said 49 were wounded, said Saad.
A few hours later a second car bomb killed another eight to 10, and wounded around 92, around 10km (north of Kerbala, Saad and local hospital officials said.
The explosions occurred despite the deployment of 120,000 police and soldiers during Arbain, a major Shiite ceremony that has been regularly targeted al Qa'eda and other militants since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
An army captain said: "It's difficult for us to control every inch of the province. There are waves of pilgrims."
Iraq has been rocked by a series of blasts in recent days ahead of the culmination on Tuesday of Arbain. More than 100 pilgrims, police recruits and police have been killed in an area ranging from Kerbala to mainly Sunni areas north of Baghdad.
The attacks pose a challenge to Iraqi security forces and Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki's newly appointed Shiite-led government as US troops prepare to withdraw fully this year.
Al Qa'eda's Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed credit in a statement posted on Sunday night for recent suicide attacks on police, describing police recruits killed in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit just under a week ago as "treacherous daggers".
Overall violence in Iraq has abated sharply since the peak in 2006/07 of the sectarian carnage unleashed after the US-led invasion. But bombings and shootings carried out by Sunni Islamist insurgents, groups allied to Saddam's former Baath party or Shiite militia continue on a daily basis.
Many pilgrims in Kerbala seemed resigned to the threat.
Fatma Madloul, 40, a pilgrim from Nassiriya carrying a green flag, said: "We will continue to do our rites for Hussein and to visit the city in spite of the explosions, until the enemies of Islam who are carrying out these explosions get bored.
"We came to Kerbala to send a message to them: the more they blow us up the more determined we will be to continue on our path of defying the enemies of Iraq."
Arbain marks the end of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed and a central figure of Shiite Islam. Imam Hussein was killed in a 7th century battle and his followers believe he was buried in Kerbala.
The annual Arbain pilgrimage draws hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Shiite Muslims from Iraq, neighbouring Iran and other Shiite communities in the Muslim world.
Shiite religious events were banned in Iraq under Saddam.