The Islamic State claimed responsibility on Saturday for the bombing of a minibus that killed 12 people near the entrance to a major Iraqi pilgrimage center.
The attack was one of the most lethal since the fall of the Islamic State’s de facto capital at the end of 2017, according to the Iraqi Security Forces.
It was also one of the few Islamic State attacks south of Baghdad since the group’s self-declared caliphate collapsed. It brought back memories of the period after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, when Shiite pilgrims were routinely targeted south of the capital as they traveled to shrines in the cities of Karbala and Najaf.
The bomb, left on the minibus by a passenger, exploded at a checkpoint at one entrance to Karbala near midnight on Friday. It killed 12 people, wounded five and demolished the bus.
The security forces said they had arrested a cell of three young men who were responsible. The three had lived in Jurf al-Sakhar, an area heavily used by the Islamic State during the period when it took over much of Iraq.
When the group lost that territory, Sunnis were expelled, and most have not been allowed to return. Many have had a marginal existence since then, living in areas for displaced people. The three suspects were construction workers, officials said.
The attack also stands out because most of the Islamic State’s activity has been in Sunni areas, primarily in the northern Iraqi provinces of Salahuddin, Diyala, Kirkuk and Nineveh as well as the western province of Anbar. Those attacks have most often focused on members of the Iraqi security forces, local mayors and occasionally other civil servants.
However, the attack is in keeping with a gradual uptick in Islamic State activity — not just in Iraq but throughout the region.
It is now a holy period for Shiites between the holidays of Ashura and Arbaeen, which celebrate the family of Islam’s founder and the fight to assert its vision of the faith. During this period, millions of pilgrims visit the shrines at Karbala and Najaf, traveling from across Iraq and also from foreign countries.
During the worst years of the country’s civil war, the insurgent group then known as Al Qaeda in Iraq routinely killed scores of pilgrims. Like its successor, the Islamic State, Al Qaeda in Iraq adhered to Sunni Islam while its targets were generally Shiite Muslims.
The Iraqi Security Forces have largely eliminated attacks on pilgrims, so the one on Friday was a worrisome sign of the Islamic State’s continuing threat.