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26 die in attack on Iraq pilgrims

BAGHDAD -- Two car bombs in Iraq's capital killed at least 26 people Saturday on the last day of a Shiite pilgrimage already hit by multiple bombings.

The blasts, one in a heavily guarded area close to a revered shrine, raised the week's death toll to more than 100 and cast further doubt on the divided government's ability to secure the country after the American withdrawal.

Black plumes of smoke filled the sky over Baghdad's northern Kazimiyah neighborhood, where the shrine to eighth-century saint Imam Moussa al-Kadhim draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year.

One of the bombs tore into throngs of people who packed the streets nearby, carrying symbolic coffins and beating their chests in mourning to mark his martyrdom.

Three days before, nearly two dozen coordinated bombs around the country killed 72 people. Al-Qaida's Iraqi affiliate on Saturday claimed responsibility for that attack, which marked one of the deadliest days in Iraq since the last U.S. troops left in December.

The fierce wave of bombings targeting Shiites suggests that the al-Qaida-allied Sunni militants are stepping up their periodic attacks to try to exploit sectarian cracks in the elected government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and possibly spark another round of the bloodshed between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that brought Iraq to the brink of civil war only a few years ago.

Shiite religious commemorations are frequent targets of these attacks.

The government is now split on mostly sectarian lines and over what critics say are al-Maliki's increasingly authoritarian tendencies. Sunni and Kurdish politicians say he is trying to increase his power at their communities' expense.

Saturday's bombings highlighted the relative weakness of Iraq's security forces, unable to stop the attacks despite throwing up roadblocks, banning motorcycles and putting tens and thousands of police and soldiers around the city.

"There is no real security, no real searches," said Mohamed Ali, who witnessed the first bombing in Shula. "Today is an exceptional day all security forces must be on high alert."

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