Two car bombs have torn through car parks packed with Shia pilgrims in an Iraqi holy city, pushing the death toll from a week of attacks to more than 170.
The upturn in violence poses a major test for prime minister Nouri al-Maliki’s new and shaky coalition government as followers of a powerful Shia cleric and a key ally demanded 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 7am on Monday in a car park near bus-loads of pilgrims on the eastern outskirts of Karbala, 55 miles south of Baghdad. Police and hospital officials said six pilgrims were killed and 34 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 others, the officials said. There is a vehicle ban in Karbala for the holy period so pilgrims are dropped off at car parks and walk in.
The 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 Shia pilgrims.
No group claimed responsibility for Monday’s blasts, but car bombs and suicide attacks are the trademark of al Qaida in Iraq and other Sunni religious extremists.
Followers of anti-US Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who have been blamed for some of the worst sectarian violence in past years, criticised Mr al-Maliki for not naming new defence, interior and national security ministers.
Mr al-Maliki formed a new government on December 21 after months of political deadlock but has said he needs more time to find security ministers who are apolitical. He maintains control of the ministries in the meantime.