BAGHDAD/HILLA, Iraq: A suicide bomber driving a car killed at least 27 Shiite at a bus station in the Iraqi town of Mussayab Thursday, according to police and medics said, as they were gathering to return home from a religious rite.
The violence came as thousands of protesters in Sunni-majority areas of the country called for the release of prisoners and the resignation of the Shiite premier, the latest in nearly two weeks of anti-government rallies.
The protests and the suicide attack, which wounded at least 60, underline the sectarian tensions that threaten to further destabilize the country a year after U.S. troops left.
Police said the Mussayab bomber drove into a busy bus station where pilgrims were catching buses back to Baghdad and the northern provinces after the Arbaeen rite in the holy city of Karbala, where thousands make an annual pilgrimage.
The town is 60 km south of the capital Baghdad.
“I was getting a sandwich when a very strong explosion rocked the place and the blast threw me away. When I regained my senses and stood up, I saw dozens of bodies,” said Ali Sabbar, a pilgrim who witnessed the explosion.
A roadside bomb targeting a minibus transporting Shiite pilgrims back from Karbala also wounded eight people in New Baghdad.
Arbaeen has been a frequent target for militants since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, who banned Shiite festivals.
The threat of attack had spurred authorities to deploy 35,000 soldiers and police to Karbala, including 2,500 policewomen, in the runup to and the climax of the pilgrimage.
Huge crowds flooded the city’s streets as sad songs blared from loudspeakers and black flags flew alongside pictures of Imam Hussein and his half-brother Imam Abbas, revered figures in Shiite Islam who are buried in Karbala.
Arbaeen marks 40 days after the Ashoura anniversary commemorating the killing of Hussein by the armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 A.D.
No group claimed responsibility for Thursday’s attacks, but Iraq is home to several Sunni insurgent groups including a local branch of Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq, which often targets Shiites, seeking to reignite sectarian strife.
The latest violence followed nearly two weeks of protests against Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki by thousands of people from the minority Sunni community in the western province of Anbar, where protesters continue to block off a key highway linking Iraq to Syria and Jordan.
Thursday’s protesters held up banners reading “State of No Law,” a reference to Maliki’s State of Law political bloc, and calling for the government to release prisoners they alleged were wrongfully detained.
In a sign of cross-sectarian anger with the government of Maliki, among the demonstrators were around 200 from Shiite areas of Baghdad and south Iraq who joined the mostly Sunni Arab demonstrators for midday prayers and the rest of the rally. “This protest is welcomed by all Iraqis – it is not sectarian,” said Ahmad Ali Hussein, a professor at Karbala University.
Jumaa Nasser al-Ani, an imam at a mosque in Anbar’s capital of Ramadi, added: “We are so happy to see our Shiite brothers supporting us – this will give us more strength.”
Protests also took place in towns and cities in Nineveh and Salaheddin provinces north of Baghdad.
In an attempt to appease the demonstrators, Justice Ministry spokesman Haidar al-Saadi said 11 female prisoners had been released and 13 others had been transferred to jails in their home provinces, a key demand of protesters angered by what they allege is the misuse of anti-terror legislation by the Shiite-led authorities to target their minority community.
Elsewhere, a senior Sunni politician blamed Iraq’s anti-terror forces, which report directly to Maliki’s office, for the shooting of his young nephew the previous day. The remarks from Atheel al-Nujaifi, governor of Nineveh, threaten to further raise political and sectarian tensions with Maliki’s government.