BAGHDAD — A female suicide bomber struck Shiite pilgrims south of Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 18 people and wounding scores of others after the government announced new measures to protect worshipers ahead of a major religious festival.
Also Thursday, the U.S. military announced that six Navy guards face trial for allegedly assaulting prisoners and releasing pepper spray into a cellblock after a disturbance at the main U.S. prison in Iraq.
The courts-martial against the sailors accused of abusing detainees are expected to begin within 30 days, the Navy's statement said.
Seven other sailors received lighter punishments for failing to report the abuse, said Cmdr. Jane Campbell, a Navy spokeswoman. The punishments included being reduced in rank, being confined to the base and being docked pay.
The bomber detonated her explosives among a group of pilgrims resting by the side of a road in Iskandariyah, a former Sunni insurgent stronghold 30 miles south of Baghdad. Women were cooking dinner, men were praying and children were playing nearby when the attacker struck, a witness said.
"Minutes after I passed the resting spot, I heard a big explosion. I turned my head and saw big flames," said Ahmed al-Saadi, a 34-year-old carpenter from Baghdad's Sadr City district. "We rushed to the scene and saw charred bodies, while wounded people were crying for help. Pots and burned prayer rugs were scattered all over the place."
The attack, which came around dusk in the city of Iskandariya, occurred at the same apartment complex where a suicide bomber killed 40 Shiite pilgrims in February.
There were conflicting casualty tolls, as is common in such attacks. The U.S. military put the death toll at 18 — one police officer and 17 civilians — and said a lone woman bomber was responsible. A senior provincial security officer said 26 people were killed and 75 wounded.
The fact that such a brazen attack could take place in an area where U.S. and Iraqi officials had touted major security improvements is an ominous sign of the risks still posed by extremists.
The pilgrims were marching to the Shiite holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, to celebrate the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th Shiite imam, who disappeared in the ninth century. Devout Shiites believe he will return to restore peace and harmony.
Earlier Thursday, at least two people were killed and 16 wounded in a pair of small bombings in Baghdad.