ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq (AFP) — Iraqi officials threw a massive security cordon around the Shiite holy city of Karbala on Friday after a wave of bombings in 24 hours killed at least 30 people, most of them pilgrims.
The attacks came ahead of a festival on Sunday to venerate an eighth century imam.
More than 40,000 soldiers and police have been mobilised, including 2,000 female security workers, to boost security in response to twin suicide bombings that killed 22 people on Thursday.
Two women detonated their explosives-packed vests 50 metres (yards) apart and at a five-minute interval in Iskandariyah, 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of Baghdad, said police Lieutenant Kazem al-Khafaji in Babil province.
The blasts also wounded at least 73, most of them young men but also women and children, in the deadliest attack to hit the war-torn nation since last Friday when 21 people were killed by a car bomb in Tal Afar.
General Fade Reza, police chief in Babil (Babylon) province, said on Friday he was unsure how many bombers had been involved, but that there had definitely been two bombs.
Eyewitness reports also spoke of two explosions, contrasting with the US military account that said it believed only one woman was behind the attacks.
Iraqi aircraft could be seen overhead and US helicopters monitored the area around the holy city, including the desert west of Karbala from which Sunni insurgents tend to launch mortar and rockets attacks.
Iskandariyah was part of the infamous "triangle of death," and its minority Shiite population has long suffered attacks including suicide bombings launched by Al-Qaeda.
Iraqi security forces face a daunting task as tens of thousands of Shiites head on foot to Karbala to venerate Imam Mahdi, an eighth century imam who vanished as a boy and whom Shiites believe will return to bring justice to the world.
"We do not have enough women police to search the pilgrims," said Reza, adding that they were also short of funds to hire more people, especially women.
"During the day it is possible to identify them but at night it is more difficult. Because of the burqa (Islamic dress), sometimes you cannot even tell if they are men or women."
Bloodshed routinely marks Shiite pilgrimages, the last of which was on July 28, when three female suicide bombers killed 25 Shiites near a Baghdad shrine.
Early on Friday, at least one Shiite pilgrim was killed in Baghdad and 10 more were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded as their bus was leaving for Sunday's festival, police said.
And despite the heavy security, a car-bomb attack killed another five people and wounded 20 later the same day in the Shiite town of Balad, 75 kilometres (45 miles) north of the capital, medics said.
Thursday's string of bombings began when a roadside bomb killed a Shiite pilgrim in Baghdad's commercial district of Karrada as they set off for Karbala, around 110 kilometres (68 miles) south of the capital.
Another explosion killed a policeman near a checkpoint in the Zafraniya district of Baghdad set up to search pilgrims heading south.
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