BAGHDAD — An attacker hiding among Iranian pilgrims with a bomb strapped under a black robe killed 38 people on Sunday outside a Baghdad mosque during ceremonies commemorating the death of one of Shiite Islam's most revered saints, officials said.
The suicide attack, the most recent in a series that has killed more than 60 people in less than a week, was the latest to mar the transfer of many security responsibilities from the U.S. military to Iraqi forces.
Violence in Iraq has declined significantly, but suicide attacks remain a constant threat. U.S. military officials have warned that January could be a particularly violent month as the country prepares for provincial elections. Insurgents also might try to assert themselves as the United States hands over military control to Iraqis.
Iraqi security forces have deployed thousands of troops in Baghdad and in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, just south of the capital, to safeguard against attacks during the religious ceremonies. Attacks by al-Qaida in Iraq, Sunni insurgents and even a Shiite cult have killed hundreds of people in recent years.
Sunday's attack was near the entrance to the Imam Mousa al-Kazim shrine, in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Kazimiyah. The attack also wounded at least 72 people and came two days after a suicide bomber slipped into a luncheon at a tribal leader's home south of Baghdad and killed at least 23 people.
Around the time of Sunday's attack, the Iraqi military was holding parades to mark the anniversary of its founding 88 years ago and to celebrate the security agreement with the United States that went into effect on Jan. 1.
Under the agreement, U.S. troops in Iraq will no longer conduct unilateral operations and will act only in concert with Iraqi forces. They must also leave major Iraqi cities by June and withdraw by the end of 2011.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani told Iraqi army troops during a parade marking Army Day that "the Iraqi army has gained the trust of government and Iraqi people as the army of all Iraqis."
Meanwhile, hundreds of worshipers had gathered at the Kazim shrine in Kazimiyah just a few miles to the north. Militants have targeted Kazimiyah repeatedly because of its significance to Iraq's Shiite majority.
The suicide bomber was among a group of Iranian pilgrims just outside the mosque gates. The office of an Iraqi army spokesman, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said a woman wearing an explosives vest was responsible. But an undercover agent with the Interior Ministry who was at the scene said the bomber was a man, the New York Times reported. The differing accounts could not be reconciled immediately.
Iraqi army and police put the deaths at 38. A report from the Health Ministry said the dead included 17 Iranian pilgrims, seven of whom were women. Seven Iraqi women also were killed by the blast, which sent shrapnel across the square.
"I saw many dead pilgrims on the ground after the explosion all covered in blood, some of them Iranians," an unidentified witness told Associated Press Television News.
Some Iraqis blamed lax checkpoints, where they witnessed officers and soldiers playing with cell phones.
Witnesses described a chaotic and tragic scene of dozens of dead and injured men, women and children — most on the pilgrimage to the shrine of Kazim, considered the seventh imam of the Shiite sect. Thousands of pilgrims are visiting the holy site to mark Ashura on Wednesday, the anniversary of the battlefield death in 680 of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Mohammed. Ashura is a defining event in the Shiite faith.
Sunday's attack bore all the hallmarks of the Sunni terror group al-Qaida in Iraq, which has killed hundreds of people in bombings against Ashura pilgrims in recent years.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. general in Iraq, blamed the group for the attack as well as the Friday suicide bombing that killed 23.
ANOTHER HANDOVER: The U.S. military handed over control in Diyala province to about 9,000 Sons of Iraq, a predominantly Sunni group of former insurgents and tribesmen whose revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq gave a significant boost to security in the turbulent province and helped turned the tide in the war against the terror group. The members are to be either integrated into the Iraqi military and police, or provided civilian jobs and vocational training.
Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.