A female suicide bomber killed at least 38 people and wounded 65 in an attack on pilgrims entering a revered Shiite shrine in northwestern Baghdad on Sunday, the Iraqi government said.
The blast struck a checkpoint outside the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine in Kadhimiya, a mainly Shiite area of Baghdad, as Shiites prepared for the Ashura holiday this week marking the death of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad.
"A woman wearing an explosive belt blew herself up near one of the gates of the shrine," Major General Qassim Atta told AFP.
"According to our first preliminary report 35 were killed and 65 injured. Most of them were Iranian pilgrims and women and children," said Atta, who is Iraqi spokesman for security operations in Baghdad. He described the force of the blast as "very big."
An interior ministry official put the death toll at 38. The U.S. military said it was aware of the bombing but was awaiting a casualty report
The attack was the deadliest in Iraq since Dec. 11 when at least 55 people were killed and 95 wounded in a suicide bombing at a restaurant outside the northern city of Kirkuk.
Sunday's attack came just two days after a male suicide bomber killed at least 23 people and wounded 72 at a tribal meeting just south of Baghdad.
U.S. forces in Iraq came under an Iraqi mandate on Jan. 1 in step with a bilateral pact that will require the withdrawal of the 140,000 U.S. troops by the end of 2011.
As the United States reduces its activities in Iraq, local forces are taking greater responsibility for security.
Almost six years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, violence has dropped dramatically from the peak of sectarian bloodshed in 2006-2007. But militants regularly stage suicide bombings, which in particular are a hallmark of insurgents linked to the al-Qaeda network.
Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites will visit the holy city of Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad throughout the Ashura week to mark the death of Hussein, one of the most important events in the Shiite calendar.
In 2004, more than 150 Shiite pilgrims were killed in coordinated suicide strikes on shrines in Baghdad and Kerbala during the holiday, attacks which heralded the sectarian fighting that consumed Iraq over the next few years.
In December, a total of 316 Iraqis were killed in political violence across Iraq, the lowest monthly death toll in nearly three years, according to official figures released on Thursday.
In all, 6,772 Iraqis were killed in Iraq last year, down from 17,430 in 2007.