BAGHDAD - A female suicide bomber struck Shi'ite worshipers in the holy city of Karbala yesterday, an official and a witness said, killing at least 43 people and leaving pools of blood on the street leading to one of Iraq's most revered mosques.
The blast was the deadliest in a series of attacks that left at least 72 Iraqis dead, including six youths killed when mortar rounds slammed into a soccer field in eastern Baghdad.
Two US soldiers also were killed yesterday in a roadside bombing north of Baghdad, bringing the American death toll closer to 4,000 as the US-led war enters its sixth year. At least 3,990 members of the US military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
The violence marred overlapping trips by Vice President Dick Cheney and Senator John McCain to Baghdad. Their visits were aimed at touting recent security gains and stressing Washington's long-term commitment to fighting insurgents in Iraq.
The US Embassy and military issued a joint statement blaming Al Qaeda in Iraq for the Karbala attack.
The attack came after the worshipers had gathered at a sacred historical site about half a mile from the golden domed shrine of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a seventh-century battle.
A police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to release the information, said the attacker was a woman - as did a witness.
The US military described the attack as a suicide operation, but put the casualty toll at 40 Iraqis killed and 65 wounded. The US statement said the identity of the bomber remained unknown.
Brigadier General Raed Shakir Jawdat, Karbala's police chief, said 43 people were killed and 73 wounded. He denied it was a suicide attack, saying a bomb had been planted in the area. The discrepancies could not immediately be resolved.
Karim Khazim, the city's chief health official, said seven of those killed were Iranian pilgrims who had traveled to the holy site.
AP Television News footage showed a man picking up pieces of flesh and wires apparently from a fuse as evening prayer services were broadcast from loudspeakers nearby.
The witness, who did not identify himself, told AP Television News that a woman in the crowd had blown herself up. If true, it would be among the deadliest attacks carried out by women during the Iraq conflict.
Female suicide bombers have been involved in at least 20 attacks or attempted attacks since the war began, including the grisly bombings of two pet markets in Baghdad that killed nearly 100 people last month.
The US military has warned that insurgents are using female attackers because they can more easily avoid checkpoint searches and can hide the explosives under traditional all-encompassing black Islamic robes.
Police closed the area around the twin golden dome mosques and blocked all roads leading to the sites, which include tombs of Imam Hussein and his half brother, also a Shi'ite saint.
Ali Hassan, 30, a clothing merchant who was wounded in the blast, said he was standing near his stall "when I heard a big explosion and I felt strong fire throwing me in the air."
"The only thing I know is there was a big explosion and I saw bodies flying in the air," said Hassan Khazim, 36, who was wounded in the face. "All the tight security measures designed to protect us were in vain."
Karbala, predominantly Shi'ite and 50 miles south of Baghdad, has tight security. Yesterday's attack was the deadliest in Karbala since a suicide car bomber killed at least 63 people on April 28, 2007.
Explosions also struck earlier yesterday not far from the capital's heavily fortified Green Zone, shortly after Cheney arrived.
Despite several high-profile bombings, violence levels have dropped sharply in recent months.
But noting the fragility of the security gains, Cheney warned against large drawdowns of American troops.