BAGHDAD — Two car bombs tore through parking lots packed with Shi’ite pilgrims yesterday in an Iraqi holy city, pushing the death toll from a week of attacks to more than 170.
The uptick in violence poses a major test for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new and somewhat shaky coalition government as followers of a powerful Shi’ite cleric and key ally demanded that he fill key security posts.
The blasts struck Karbala as hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were massing for religious rituals, marking the end of a 40-day mourning period for the Islamic sect’s most beloved saint.
The first attack occurred about 7 a.m. in a parking lot near busloads of pilgrims on the eastern outskirts of Karbala, 55 miles south of Baghdad.
Police and hospital officials said six pilgrims were killed and 34 other people were wounded in that attack.
Another bomb was discovered nearby and dismantled before it could explode, police said.
More than four hours later, a second explosion struck pilgrims on the southern edge of the city, killing at least 20 people, including two soldiers, and wounding 42, the officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information.
There is a vehicle ban in Karbala for the holy period, so pilgrims are dropped off at parking lots and walk in.
Yesterday’s attacks followed a triple suicide bombing last week along two highways leading to Karbala that killed 56 and wounded at least 180 — most of them Shi’ite pilgrims.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims are gathering in Karbala for ceremonies marking the end of Arbaeen, a 40-day mourning period to observe the seventh-century death of the Imam Hussein, the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson.
His death in battle near Karbala sealed Islam’s historic Sunni-Shi’ite split — the ancient divide that provided the backdrop for the sectarian bloodshed in Iraq after the 2003 US-led war.
No group claimed responsibility for yesterday’s blast, but car bombs and suicide attacks are the trademark of Al Qaeda in Iraq and other Sunni religious extremists.
Those groups have frequently targeted Shi’ites in a bit to reignite sectarian violence that pushed the country to the brink of civil war.
Since the end of the Sunni-dominated rule of Saddam Hussein, Shi’ite politicians have encouraged huge turnouts at religious rituals, banned under the former regime as a demonstration of Shi’ite power.