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Bombers kill 51 pilgrims in Iraq

BAGHDAD Three suicide car bombers struck Shiite pilgrims south of Baghdad on Thursday, killing at least 51 people and wounding more than 180 in a third straight day of attacks across Iraq.

The string of assaults, reminiscent of the bloodiest days of the Iraq War, shattered a two-month lull and presented a major challenge to the new government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who must soon decide whether to ask U.S. forces to stay after the end of the year.

Thursday's attacks were particularly significant because most of the victims were Shiite civilians, the government's core constituency. A lawmaker allied with anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose support for al-Maliki was crucial in enabling him to remain prime minister, accused government security forces of "not acting in a professional manner" to protect the pilgrims.

"I expect the attacks will continue due to the negligence of the security forces," the lawmaker, Hakim al-Zamili, told the Associated Press.

The attacks took place at mid-afternoon Thursday at three security checkpoints -- one north and the two others south of Karbala, where millions of Shiite pilgrims are converging for rituals marking the 7th century death of Imam Hussein. He was a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who was slain near the city by Muslim rivals.

The dead included a dozen Iraqi soldiers and policemen as well as an undisclosed number of women and children, officials said.

No group claimed responsibility, but suicide attacks are the trademark of the Islamic State of Iraq, an al-Qaida front group believed made up mostly of Sunni religious extremists.

Last month an alliance of Shiite parties took control of the government following elections in March, during which the Sunni-backed Iraqiya party won bragging rights by finishing first with a two-seat plurality. With Iraqiya given a role in the new government, hopes were high that the Iraqis might be able to set aside sectarian ethnic and religious differences and begin the arduous task of rebuilding the country after nearly eight years of war.

Those hopes have now begun to fade.