BAGHDAD - Three suicide car bombers struck Shia pilgrims south of Baghdad yesterday, killing at least 51 people and wounding more than 180 in a third straight day of attacks across Iraq.
The string of assaults, reminiscent of the bloodiest days of the Iraq War, shattered a two-month lull and presented a major challenge to the new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who must soon decide whether to ask U.S. forces to stay after the end of the year.
Yesterday's attacks were particularly significant because most of the victims were Shia civilians, the government's core constituency. A lawmaker allied with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose support for al-Maliki was crucial in enabling him to remain prime minister, accused security forces of "not acting in a professional manner" to protect the pilgrims.
"I expect the attacks will continue . . . due to the negligence of the security forces," the lawmaker, Hakim al-Zamili, told The Associated Press.
The attacks took place at midafternoon at three security checkpoints - one north and the two others south of Karbala, where millions of Shia pilgrims are converging for rituals marking the 7th century death of Imam Hussein. He was a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was slain near the city by Muslim rivals.
Ali Khamas, a pilgrim from the Shia neighborhood of Sadr City in Baghdad, said he saw a car speeding toward one of the checkpoints.
"After the explosion, people started to run in all directions, while wounded people on the ground were screaming for help, said Khamas, 42, a truck driver.
The dead included a dozen Iraqi soldiers and policemen as well as a number of women and children, officials said.
No group claimed responsibility, but suicide attacks are the trademark of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group believed made up mostly of Sunni religious extremists.
Such groups have frequently targeted Shia civilians, in part because Shia parties used their ties to the Americans to gain power after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.