On February 1, repeating a pattern of attacks carried out a year previously, a woman suicide bomber wearing an abaya or burqa blew herself up among Shia pilgrims passing through Shaab on their way to the holy city of Kerbala in southern Iraq. According to official figures, 54 were killed, including women and children, and 117 wounded. Fears have been raised of more attacks as the Kerbala pilgrimage proceeds to its culmination on Arbaeen (on February 5). Some 14 million people made the pilgrimage in 2009, and even more are expected this time. The physical difficulties of protecting them are obvious; most make the pilgrimage on foot, and many come from the Iraqi province of Diyala, which is known to be a centre for the recruitment and training of female suicide bombers. Iraq apparently does not have enough policewomen to search women at checkpoints. One Iraqi official body has maintained that the explosion occurred near a point where women were undergoing searches, but according to a survivor there were no searches. The use of sniffer dogs is often restricted by local and regional cultural sensitivities. Foreign equipment sold to Iraq has often turned out to be defective, and a British manufacturer of a non-functioning detector of explosives is to face fraud charges in the United Kingdom.

The political significance of the bombing is considerable. No group has yet claimed responsibility for it, though the pattern is consistent with previous Sunni-extremist attacks (including the bombing of candidates’ cars) aimed at discrediting the largely Shia government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and destabilising the run-up to the parliamentary elections scheduled for March. The latest attack has further exposed the civic void caused by the destruction of Iraq’s political and administrative infrastructure after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. In addition, such attacks show that their planners can easily outmanoeuvre the Iraqi government and forces, despite the deployment of 50,000 security personnel in Kerbala and Najaf. That in turn reveals the political power vacuum in Iraq seven years after the invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. It is common knowledge that the invasion leaders, the U.S. and the U.K., had no plans for the post-invasion period. Now there is no foreseeable prospect of an end to Iraq’s political instability.

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