Suicide bomber kills 40 Shiite pilgrims in Iraq

( dpa ) - A suicide bomber killed 40 people and injured 60 in a centre for Shiite pilgrims in the Iraqi town of Alexandria, south of Baghdad, police and medical sources said.

The bomber wearing an explosive belt blew himself up inside a centre for pilgrims who were on the way to the southern city of Karbala.

The city hosts a religious festival every year to mark the end of 40 days of mourning for the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Imam Hussein, who was killed by rival co-religionists in 681.

Pilgrims from the north often stop in Alexandria in the province of Babil, 60 kilometres south of Baghdad, which is on the way to Karbala.

The bombing was the second attack targeting pilgrims on Sunday. The first was in Baghdad's southern district of Dourra, where at least three people were killed and 45 injured by gunmen.

Meanwhile five members of Sunni tribal forces known as the Awakening Councils were killed in separate attacks, including the council's chief in Fallujah, as the Iraqi government said it was planning to form more tribal forces, police and media said.

A senior member of the Awakening Council in Fallujah in the Sunni- dominated western Anbar province was killed Saturday along with his two aides in twin suicide bombings at a checkpoint manned by tribal policemen in the city, the independent Voices (VOI) of Iraq news agency reported.

Sheikh Ibrahim Mutairi was killed in the attack carried out by two brothers, who have been identified by the police as members of the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Anbar, formerly a hotbed of Sunni insurgency, has seen relative calm since local tribes were involved in restoring law and order there.

The lull in violence has been breached by occasional attacks, including the assassination of the chief of the province's Awakening Council, Sheikh Abdel-Sattar Abu-Risha, in September.

In a separate attack in Hawija, near Tikrit, 250 kilometres north of Baghdad, two members of the local Awakening Council were killed and eight injured, including a senior member.

A car parked in a garage near the offices of the council in Hawija was blown up Sunday morning, police sources in Kirkuk told Deutsche Presse-Agentur dpa.

The chief of the local council, Maj-Gen Hussein Ali was among the wounded.

Awakening Councils are forces of Sunni tribesmen allied with the US and Iraqi forces formed to fight insurgents from the al-Qaeda terrorist network.

Improving security in Baghdad and surrounding areas has been partly attributed to the councils' anti-al-Qaeda campaign.

Attacks on council members have increased since December in the wake of a call made by the network's leader, Osama bin Laden, for insurgents to target members of the tribal forces.

The latest attack comes as the Iraqi government announced it was planning to form 10 more Awakening Councils raising their number to 42, the state-owned al-Sabah newspaper cited a cabinet official, Abud Wahid, as saying.

Members of councils operating mainly in Baghdad and the surrounding areas as well as restive parts of provinces nearby are to be gradually integrated into the security forces after being vetted.

The total number of council members is estimated to be 70,000, according to the newspaper.

They mainly provide support for regular security forces, help with rebuilding efforts in areas cleared of insurgency and the return of families displaced by the conflict to those areas.

The government plans to form tribal councils in restive areas in northern Iraq, such as Talafar, Mosul and some parts of Diyala and Salahaddin, Wahid said.

"The existence of the Awakening Councils will end when the security situation is stable and their integration in security forces completed. This will happen when sectarian violence comes to an end," said the official, who is a member of the national reconciliation committee in the cabinet.

The government has set up a department in charge of disarming paramilitary groups, collecting their arms and executing a compensation payment programme, for which millions of dollars are allocated in the Iraqi budget.

The department will also create jobs for members of dismantled militias.

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