BAGHDAD - More than 55 people have been killed and nearly 300 injured in a wave of suicide bombings across Iraq. The explosions punctured a period of relative calm in which violence dropped to a four-year low.
Three suicide bombers, believed to have been women, struck in Baghdad as thousands of Shia Muslim pilgrims flooded into the city. The blasts killed at least 32 people and wounded 102, police and hospital staff said.
In the northern city of Kirkuk, a suicide bomber attacked a rally against a law on provincial elections. At least 25 people were killed and 185 injured.
Local police said remains at the scene indicated the bomber was also a woman, although the US military could not confirm this.
The protest had been called to oppose planned provincial elections which the city's Kurdish population fear could affect the control of oil resources. After the blast, angry Kurds opened fire on the offices of a Turkoman political party that opposes Kurdish claims on the oil-rich city.
No group claimed responsibility. Sunni Islamists connected to al-Qaida have previously targeted Shia pilgrims and were suspected of being behind the Baghdad attack.
Female suicide bombers have carried out more than 20 attacks this year. A team of female guards has been deployed around Kadhamiya specifically to search suspects. Groups linked to al-Qaida have increasingly used women as suicide bombers because it is often easier for them to evade security measures.
It is unclear if the Baghdad victims were all pilgrims but the blasts were near the central Karrada district, an area many would have had to pass through on their way to the Kadhamiya shrine in the north-west of the city.
At least a million people are expected to arrive in Baghdad to visit the shrine that honours one of Shia Islam's 12 imams. Numbers will peak tomorrow.
Today's Baghdad blasts were the bloodiest attack in the city since 63 people died in a truck bombing on June 17. In general, Iraq has become more peaceful in recent months with overall violence dropping to the lowest rate since early 2004.
In 2005, the Kadhamiya pilgrimage was marred by one of the biggest death tolls in a single incident since the 2003 US-led invasion. Rumours of a bomb attack triggered a stampede across a bridge to the shrine. Almost 1,000 people were killed.
The bridge has been closed but is expected to reopen soon after this year's pilgrimage. Other bridges and roads leading to Kadhamiya have been closed for the event, and a vehicle curfew has been imposed.
Since the removal of Saddam Hussein, who was a Sunni, rival Shia political parties have encouraged large turnouts at religious festivals to display the majority sect's power in Iraq. Sunni militants have regularly targeted such gatherings.
© 2008 The Guardian