Iraq truck bomb kills 70, mostly Iranian pilgrims
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Iraq truck bomb kills 70, mostly Iranian pilgrims

Blast targets packed buses at gas station following Shiite festival in city of Karbala

Shiite Muslim pilgrims gather outside the Imam Hussein shrine on the last day of the Arbaeen religious festival on November 21, 2016, in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad. (AFP/Mohammed SAWAF)
Shiite Muslim pilgrims gather outside the Imam Hussein shrine on the last day of the Arbaeen religious festival on November 21, 2016, in the holy Iraqi city of Karbala, 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad. (AFP/Mohammed SAWAF)

A suicide truck bomb blast in Iraq killed at least 70 people Thursday, most of them Iranian pilgrims returning from the holy Shiite city of Karbala, a security official said.

“There are at least 70 dead, fewer than 10 are Iraqis, the rest are Iranians,” Falah al-Radhi, head of the security committee for the Babylon provincial council, told AFP.

The explosion ripped through a petrol station where buses packed with Shiite pilgrims returning from the Arbaeen commemoration in Karbala were parked, security officials said.

The Iranian nationals — who were the largest contingent of foreigners at the Arbaeen pilgrimage that ended on Monday — were among the victims, the Joint Operations Command (JOC) said.

Officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but the attack bore the hallmarks of the Islamic State group.

“At least seven buses with pilgrims were inside the petrol station at the time,” a police lieutenant colonel told AFP.

The blast struck in the village of Shomali, 120 kilometers (75 miles) southeast of the capital Baghdad and around 80 kilometers (50 miles) from Karbala.

“Those buses were loaded with Iranians, Bahrainis and Iraqis. Ambulances and civil defense are on their way to the site,” a police intelligence source told AFP.

A Shomali resident said the petrol station was on the main motorway between Baghdad and the southern port city of Basra.

“There were Iranians but also lots of people from Basra and Nasiriyah,” Mousa Omran told AFP, referring to another southern city.

Between 17 and 20 million people visited Karbala, home to the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, for Arbaeen, which is one of the world’s largest religious events.

The days-long final phase of the pilgrimage sees huge numbers of pilgrims walk long distances to reach Karbala.

According to the Iraqi authorities, around three million Iranians were among this year’s visitors. Many of them stay a few days longer to visit the shrine city.

Iraq’s security forces were on high alert for the duration of the pilgrimage, seen as a major potential target for the Islamic State group.

The jihadist organization, which is currently trying to defend its last major Iraqi bastion of Mosul against a massive offensive, has claimed countless such bombings.

Observers had feared the group, whose cross-border caliphate is crumbling under the pressure of multiple military operations backed by Iran and the West, would seek to attack Karbala.

Around 25,000 members of the security forces were deployed in and around the city last week to protect the pilgrims and the shrine but some have since returned to the front lines.

Thursday’s attack marred an Arbaeen commemoration that had passed with fewer attacks than in previous years.

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