Iraqi female suicide bomber kills 54

BAGHDAD — A female suicide bomber detonated her explosives inside a way station for Shiite pilgrims Monday, killing 54 people and rattling security officials who are struggling against a possible rise in violence before key elections next month.

The attack was the third major strike by suspected Sunni insurgents in a week and left Baghdad’s top security official acknowledging that extremists are adopting new methods to outwit bomb-detection squads such as stashing explosives deep inside the engines and frames of vehicles.

A similar warning about new tactics came last week from the chief U.S. military commander in Iraq, Gen. Raymond Odierno, after a two-day wave of suicide car bombers struck three hotels in Baghdad and the city’s main crime lab, killing at least 63 people.

U.S. and Iraqi officials are deeply concerned that insurgents such as al-Qaida in Iraq could step up violence before March 7 parliamentary elections, which are seen as a critical step in reconciliation between the majority Shiites and the Sunnis who lost control with the toppling of Saddam Hussein.

The latest attack was another blow — but not entirely unexpected.

Shiite pilgrims are easy targets for bombers who can mingle with the crowds streaming on roads to shrines and other sites. The current pilgrimage is one of the largest.

Hundreds of thousands of people are walking this week toward Karbala in southern Iraq before the culmination of religious events Friday — marking the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death Imam Hussein, a revered Shiite figure.

Iraqi security forces have promised to protect the pilgrims with expanded patrols and checkpoints. But Monday’s bombing shows the huge challenges of trying to find a single attacker among the throng.