The procession was both festive and religious. As thousands of the faithful thronged the streets of Baghdad, making their way to the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim, an 8th-century martyr revered by Iraq's Shiite Muslims, some pilgrims smiled, pumped their fists and danced. Black-clad men flagellated themselves with 2-pound chains in a ritual called zinjeel. Revelers seemed more relaxed than in recent years, undoubtedly a reflection of the relative calm that has embraced the city lately. But a trio of suicide bombers, all believed to be women, blew themselves up amidst the crowd, killing more at least 32 people. In the northern city of Kirkuk, another female bomber struck, this time killing at least 25 people at a political rally. The twin assaults not only claimed a total of at least 57 lives, but also served as grim reminders that a turning point in Iraq's conflict remains elusive.
Imam Moussa al-Kadhim is buried under a golden dome in the Kadhimiyah section of north Baghdad. Iraqi authorities had done what they could to secure the area around the shrine, even employing scores of women to search female devotees. Deploying the women officers was a smart move that recognized a growing willingness by Al Qaeda in Iraq and both Sunni and Shiite militias to deploy females as suicide bombers, knowing that the Iraqi Army and police force have been reluctant to search women and are ill-equipped to do so. More to the point, Iraq's religious parties consistently balk at the notion of searching women at all. "They used women in attacks because it is so difficult for the forces to search the women," acknowledges Muhammad al-Askary, Ministry of Defense spokesman.
The assailants, or more precisely, the organizers behind them, also chose to detonate their bombs in the Karrada area before the procession arrived in the more highly secured Kadhimiya. "We spread many troops and checkpoints inside Kadhimiya and around it," Askary told NEWSWEEK. The women blew themselves up in three different mawakibs, rest stops where people offer water, tea and food to the pilgrims.
The disparate targets of the bombing suggested that the insurgents' main goal was more about wreaking carnage than about sectarianism. While the Baghdad explosion was aimed at Shiites, the Kirkuk explosion twas directed at Kurds protesting Iraq's proposed provincial election law. The law has been the source of much conflict, drawing fire from local leaders afraid of losing power. The disagreements have forced the government to postpone the ballot, now scheduled for December. The bombing in Kirkuk, a multiethnic city claimed by separatists in nearby Kurdistan, prompted some protesters to attack Turkomen who oppose the aspirations of the Kurds to the north.
At the American Embassy, condemnation of the day's bombings came swiftly from Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, both of whom have been expressing cautious optimism that the worst of the Iraq conflict may have passed. "The targets of these vicious and cowardly attacks were innocent Iraqi men, women, and children who were freely practicing their democratic rights and religious faith," they said in a joint statement. "It is crucial that the Iraqi people remain united and steadfast in the face of those terrorists who would use violence to destroy a free Iraq and set back the progress for which so many have so bravely sacrificed." Iraqi authorities, meanwhile, imposed a vehicle ban across Baghdad that was to last from 5 a.m. Tuesday to 5 a.m. Wednesday, along with a curfew in Kirkuk that was to run from 3 p.m. to 6 a.m.
The government is determined to protect its citizens, Askary insists. "The security procedures in Baghdad are going on as planned. After what happened today, we are willing to increase the number of women inside the security forces to search the women in order to control everything during these [events]," he says. "The terrorists are breathing their last breaths and try to say they are powerful. This is their end." But with even more pilgrims expected in Bahdad on Tuesday, the day that marks the actual anniversary of the death of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim, many Iraqis, including the authorities, were bracing for the possibility of more deadly attacks.