BAGHDAD - At least 23 people died in attacks across Iraq on Thursday, including a provincial leader and pilgrims observing a major Shi'ite religious ritual, police and officials said.

Na'ma Jassim al-Bakri, a governing council member in the southern Babel province, was among 12 people killed in twin bomb attacks at a bus and taxi terminal in the provincial capital of Hilla, said Abu Ahmed al-Basri, another Babel councillor.

Up to 91 people were believed to have been injured, including three explosives experts called in to defuse a bomb in the terminal. The men were working on the device when a nearby car exploded, detonating the first bomb as well.

It was unclear whether Bakri was killed in the blasts or by ensuing gunfire from Iraqi security forces.

In Baghdad, an explosion at a funeral wake killed five people and wounded 22 others, police said. The bomb was planted next to a funeral tent in Sadr City, a poor Shi'ite area.

Across the city in southeastern Zaafaraniya, a roadside bomb killed three and wounded 22, all of them Shi'ite pilgrims who were taking part in the religious festival of Ashura which culminates on Sunday.

Ashura marks the death of Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad in the Iraqi city of Kerbala in the year 680.

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims are expected to converge on Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad, in an emotive, mournful ritual honouring Hussein.

Iraqi security forces will take major security precautions to try to ensure the safety of Shi'ite travellers, many of whom walk several days to reach Kerbala.
Sunni Islamist militants have often turned such pilgrimages into bloodbaths in the years since the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Iraq is preparing for national elections in March 2010, an event that has set its quarrelsome political class on edge and raises questions about the nation's future as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2011.


In a town outside Kerbala a roadside bomb exploded near a restaurant on Thursday, killing one person and wounding five others. Two of those wounded were pilgrims.

Two men were also shot dead in separate attacks in the northern city of Mosul. One was a Christian, an attack that was likely to heighten fears among the religious minority about targeted violence before the Christmas holiday.

Several recent attacks have targeted Christian churches in Mosul, one of Iraq's most diverse cities and also one of its most dangerous.

Some Iraqi Christians, who are believed to number around 750,000, have said they will curtail their Christmas celebrations this year, partly out of fear of attacks and also out of respect for Muslims' celebration of Ashura.

Saad Matti, a member of the provincial council in southern Basra, said that Christians in Basra will content ourselves with just going to church to pray this year.

In northern Kirkuk, a city disputed by Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, some Christians such as 45-year-old Laith Yusif said Christmas celebrations would be more modest than in years past.
Many Christians, like hundreds of thousands of Muslims, have fled Iraq during the years of violence and chaos since 2003. The rest of us live in permanent fear, Yusif said.

(Additional reporting by Mustafa Mahmoud in Kirkuk and Aref Mohammed in Basra; Writing by Missy Ryan; editing by Alison Williams/David Stamp)