At least 100 Shia pilgrims were killed in a suicide truck bomb attack in Iraq on Thursday. The blast struck near a petrol station and restaurant in al-Hilla town, around 100 kms south of Baghdad.
The blast ripped through a petrol station where buses packed with pilgrims returning from the Arbaeen in Karbala were parked, officials said.
Most of the victims were Iranians, the largest contingent of foreigners in the pilgrimage, which is one of the world’s largest religious events and culminated on Monday.
The suicide bombing was claimed by the Islamic State group which is fighting to defend its Mosul stronghold in northern Iraq as Iraqi forces battle to retake the stronghold.
Falah al-Radhi, head of the provincial security committee for Babylon, the province where the bombing happened, said it had targeted several buses.
“A large truck exploded among them. It was a suicide attack,” he told AFP. “There are at least 70 dead, fewer than 10 are Iraqis, the rest are Iranians.”
Videos circulating on social media showed debris scattered over a large area along the main highway linking Baghdad to the main southern port city of Basra.
The Joint Operations Command in Baghdad issued a statement saying the truck was packed with 500 litres of ammonium nitrate, a chemical compound used in many explosive devices.
Up to 20 million people visited Karbala, home to the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, for Arbaeen this year. According to the Iraqi authorities, around three million of them were Iranians.
Iraq had deployed around 25,000 members of the security forces in and around the shrine city, which lies southwest of Baghdad, to protect the pilgrims from a feared IS attack.
The jihadist group, which is losing ground in Mosul, has carried out a series of high-profile diversionary attacks since Iraqi forces launched a huge offensive against their northern stronghold last month.
Elite forces battled IS jihadists in eastern Mosul on Thursday, looking for fresh momentum in their five-week-old offensive to retake Iraq’s second city.
Over the past few days, Iraqi forces have cut off the main supply line running from Mosul to the western border with Syria, where IS still controls the city of Raqa.
The US-led coalition also bombed bridges over the Tigris river that splits Mosul in two, reducing the jihadists’ ability to resupply the eastern front.
(With inputs from agencies)