A suicide attack near a Shi’ite shrine killed at least 36 people on Monday in the central Iraqi city of Karbala, a health official said.
The attack came as United States Vice-President Dick Cheney visited Baghdad on a surprise trip and met several US and Iraqi leaders to discuss the recent improvement in security across the country.
At least 50 people were wounded in the blast, which occurred near the revered Imam Hussein shrine, said Alaa Hamud Dadair, head of Karbala’s health directorate.
Witnesses said the attacker was a female suicide bomber, Dadair said.
An Agence France-Presse correspondent at the site said several ambulances and police vehicles were ferrying victims to hospital following the blast, which occurred about 100m from the shrine, located in the centre of the city.
Soon after the attack, Karbala police imposed an indefinite curfew in the central parts of the city.
Insurgents have targeted the Shi’ite shrine city on several occasions in the past five years.
On April 28 last year a suicide car-bomb attack near the Imam Abbas shrine, a second revered shrine in Karbala, killed more than 70 people and wounded nearly 160.
Two weeks earlier, a similar bomb attack close to the Imam Hussein shrine killed 42 people and wounded scores more.
Karbala was also the site of bloody clashes between Shi’ite militants and police in August, which left more than 50 people dead and hundreds injured.
The Mehdi Army militia of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr was blamed for those clashes, after which al-Sadr ordered a freeze on the activities of the militia, which remains in force.
Iraq has been rocked by a series of suicide bomb attacks in recent months, including by females.
The US military says explosive vests have become the weapon of choice for al-Qaeda in Iraq, with most jihadists nowadays wearing the suicide apparel.
”Late in 2007 there were about eight or 10 [suicide bombings] a month; in the month of February, there were 18. There is an increase,” US military spokesperson Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told a news conference on Sunday.
The US military in Iraq had also tracked an increase in requests by al-Qaeda leaders for foreign fighters to become human bombs, Smith said.
However, he added, measures by countries such as Saudi Arabia and Syria to stop foreign fighters slipping across the border into Iraq has reduced the number of available recruits. — Sapa-AFP