A suicide attacker and twin bomb blast on Thursday targeted Shias marking a sombre religious ritual in Iraq, killing at least 41 people and wounding more than 100, officials said.

The ritual, known as Ashoura, is observed every year over a 10-day period and has in the past been marred by massive attacks by al-Qaeda and other Sunni extremists who see Shias as heretics. This year, the attacks come amid an escalating campaign of violence by insurgents seeking to thwart the Shia-led government’s efforts to maintain security.

The deadliest of Thursday’s attacks was in the town of al-Saadiyah, 140 kilometres (90 miles) northeast of Baghdad, where a suicide bomber struck a group of Shias gathered for an Ashoura event. The explosion killed at least 32 people and wounded 75, two police officers said.

The Shias at the Saadiyah gathering were recreating the 7th century battle of Karbala, a city in present-day Iraq. Ashoura commemorates the death of Prophet Mohammed grandson, Imam Hussein, in that battle.

Earlier on Thursday, two bombs exploded simultaneously near tents set up to offer food and drinks to Shias pilgrims passing through Hafriyah, a town about 50 kilometres (32 miles) south of the Iraqi capital, another police officer said.

The Shias were making their way on foot to Hussein’s gold-domed shrine in Karbala, some 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Baghdad, where authorities said more than two million pilgrims were expected to converge on Thursday.

Ashoura attracts hundreds of thousands of Shias to holy sites across Iraq. Security forces have imposed tight security measures in and around Karbala, as well as other Shiite cities and also Baghdad, sealing off areas where the Shias, most of them dressed in black, were passing through or stopping to rest.

Some Shias in the processions were ritually whipping their bodies with chains and knives in grief, drenching themselves in blood, which is part of the Ashoura.

On Tuesday, triple bombings struck a group of Shias marking the Ashoura in the eastern city of Baqouba, a former al-Qaeda stronghold, 60 kilometres (35 miles) northeast of Baghdad, killing eight people, including two children, and wounding 35.

Iraq has been hit by a surge in violence and insurgent attacks since April, when security forces cracked down on a Sunni protest camp in the north. The pace of the killings has soared to levels not seen since 2008.

More than 5,500 people died since April, according to United Nations figures. Thursday’s attacks bring the death toll across the country this month to 176, according to an Associated Press count.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the latest attacks, but suicide attacks and other bombings especially against Shias and Iraqi forces are a favourite tactic of al-Qaeda’s local branch.

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