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32 die in attack on Iraqi Shi'ite pilgrims

3 US soldiers reported killed

The coffin of a pilgrim, one of five people killed in a bomb attack Saturday in eastern Baghdad, was carried in Najaf yesterday . (Ali Abu Shish/Reuters)

BAGHDAD -- A suicide car bomber barreled into a flatbed truck packed with Shi'ite pilgrims yesterday, touching off a giant fireball that left charred bodies strewn through a street in the heart of Baghdad. At least 32 people were killed.

The ambush-style attack showed suspected Sunni insurgents again taking aim at the millions of worshipers who traveled to the holy city of Karbala and are now heading home.

It also displayed the limitations of the US-led crackdown seeking to restore order in the capital, where bombers still strike with deadly efficiency against mostly Shi'ite targets in an apparent bid to ignite a full-scale civil war.

Meanwhile, the US military reported three soldiers killed yesterday. One was killed by a roadside bomb southwest of the capital, while another died in combat and the third was killed in an unspecified "noncombat incident" in northern Iraq, the military said .

Blasts killed at least 15 others in Baghdad a day after Iraqi officials warned an international conference that Iraq's sectarian violence could spread across the Middle East if not quelled.

In Muqdadiyah, 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, Sunni extremists attacked Shi'ites and set about 30 houses on fire in villages, forcing dozens of families to flee, local officials and witnesses said.

The latest attacks followed a week in which hundreds of Shi'ite pilgrims were killed trying to reach the rituals in Karbala, about 50 miles south of Baghdad. The exodus faces the same risks.

The pilgrims riding back in the truck -- about 70 men and boys -- passed through the most dangerous stretch of Sunni-dominated territory. They were celebrating their good fortune as they moved into heavy traffic at a place known as Embassy Intersection because the German diplomatic compound occupies one corner.

One of the pilgrims, Mustafa Moussawi, noticed a car racing toward them from behind.

"Then the car bomber slammed us," said Moussawi, a 31-year-old vegetable store owner who suffered slight injuries when he was thrown to the street by the force of the blast.

He was among the luckiest. Most others were overwhelmed by flames. Another survivor, Nasir Sultan, a 38-year-old Transportation Ministry worker, said he watched people thrash helplessly in the inferno.

Police and hospital officials said at least 32 people died and 24 were injured.

"I blame the government," said Moussawi. "They didn't provide a safe route for us even though they knew we were targets for attack."

In the past two years, the Shi'ite militia Mahdi Army provided security for the pilgrimage -- marking the end of 40 days mourning for the seventh-century battlefield death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson. Shi'ites consider him the rightful heir of Islam's leadership, cementing the rift with Sunni Muslims.

This year, however, the Mahdi militiamen have been sent to the wings under a deal between their leader, radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, and the government to ease the way for the Baghdad security sweeps.

The pact has apparently led to a decrease in execution-style slayings blamed on Shi'ite death squads. But it also made the pilgrims easier prey.

Shortly before the truck was attacked, a bomb-rigged car in central Baghdad killed at least five pilgrims and injured six. In another part of the city, a suicide bomber detonated a belt packed with metal fragments inside a minibus heading to a mostly Shi'ite area, killing at least 10 people and wounding five.

In Salahuddin Province northwest of Baghdad, Iraqi-led forces backed by US warplanes staged raids against suspected insurgent training bases, including sites linked to antiaircraft batteries, the US military said. At least seven suspected insurgents died.

In the northern city of Mosul, a suicide bomber attacked the offices of the largest Sunni political group, said Mohammed Shakir al-Ghanam, a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party. Three guards were killed and two wounded, he said.