MICHELE NORRIS, host:
In Iraq today, four female suicide bombers killed more than 50 people. Hundreds of others were wounded in the attacks in Baghdad, in the northern city of Kirkuk. The victims were religious pilgrims and political protestors. The attacks were a reminder of the security struggles that remain in Iraq, and there are fears of more trouble tomorrow as pilgrims gather for the holiday marking the death of a revered Shiite saint. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story now from Baghdad.
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SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Thousands of Shiite Muslim pilgrims walked through this popular shopping district here in Baghdad. Mournful religious chants blare from loudspeakers set up to greet them. They aren't here to shop. The storeowners have closed their businesses.
Instead, they serve water and juice to the travelers from tables they've set up along the road. Other pilgrims seeking to escape the searing heat sit inside tents or under trees, but soon they press on to the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim some five miles away.
The march, which ends tomorrow, is an annual rite for Shiites who are commemorating the death of the revered saint. The pilgrimage has also become a favorite target for insurgents trying to shake people's faith in their government and stir up sectarian strife.
For days, Iraqi officials have tried to tell citizens this year's observance would be different, but on this morning three female suicide bombers killed and wounded scores of pilgrims less than two miles from where these Iraqis are marching now.
After the blast, Iraqi police officers and soldiers quickly tightened checkpoints and a ban on car use in the city. Sunni lawmaker Salih al-Mutlak, a frequent critic of the Shiite-led government, says the attacks came as no surprise.
Mr. SALIH al-MUTLAK (Sunni Lawmaker): Well, we said from the beginning that the security (unintelligible) is very fragile, the violence could come back again at any time.
NELSON: But pilgrims arriving here today refused to be deterred. By tomorrow they are expected to number a million. One of them is Abbas Kadham, a 40-year-old who walked from the city of Kut, 70 miles away.
Mr. ABBAS KADHAM (Shiite Pilgrim): (Through translator) Even if there are threats, we sacrifice ourselves to God.
NELSON: North of Baghdad, in the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, it was politics rather than religion that drew a suicide bomber this morning. The attacker targeted a crowd of Kurdish demonstrators, who were protesting a controversial law passed last week. That law paved the way for local elections to be held everywhere except in Kirkuk. Anmar Ismail is a local radio correspondent in Kirkuk who witnessed the attack.
Mr. ANMAR ISMAIL (Radio Correspondent): (Speaking foreign language)
NELSON: Ismail says he was hit by shrapnel in his left leg. He says he froze when he saw the carnage. He says local security forces began firing their guns, adding to the chaos.
The blast prompted some protestors to try and storm a nearby political office of rival Turkmen, whom they blamed for the attack. Authorities have now slapped a curfew on Kirkuk and Baghdad in hopes of preventing any more violence. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Baghdad.
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