BAGHDAD – A female homicide bomber blew herself up Monday amid a group of Shiite worshippers near a mosque in Karbala, Iraq, killing at least 39 people and wounding 54, officials said.
The worshippers were gathered about a kilometer, or half a mile, from the Imam Hussein shrine, one of the holiest sites for Shiites.
Karim Khazim, the city's chief health official, said the 32 killed included seven Iranians.
Police said the attacker was a woman but provided no other immediate details. Karbala is located about 50 miles south of Baghdad.
Police closed the area around the twin golden dome mosques and blocked all roads leading to the sites. The site includes tombs of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson who was killed in a seventh-century battle, and his half brother, also a Shiite saint.
Ali Hassan, 30, a clothing merchant who was wounded in the blast, said he was standing near his stall "when I heard a big explosion and I felt strong fire throwing me in the air."
"The only thing I know is there was a big explosion and I saw bodies flying in the air," said Hassan Khazim, 36, who was wounded in the face. "All the tight security measures designed to protect us were in vain."
Separately, a roadside bomb killed two U.S. soldiers Monday as they were clearing a route north of Baghdad, the military said.
The violence came as Vice President Dick Cheney and Arizona Sen. John McCain made overlapping visits to the capital, touting recent security gains and promising to uphold a long-term military commitment to the country so long as Al Qaeda in Iraq is not defeated.
Explosions also struck earlier Monday not far from Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone, shortly after Cheney arrived. Helicopter gunships circled central Baghdad, but no other details were immediately available on the cause of the explosions.
McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate for president who has linked his political future to military success in Iraq, met Monday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki shortly before the Iraqi leader began separate talks with Cheney.
Al-Maliki said he and the vice president discussed ongoing negotiations over a long-term security agreement between the two countries that would replace the U.N. mandate for foreign troops set to expire at the end of the year.
"This visit is very important. It is about the nature of the relations between the two countries, the future of those relations and the agreement in this respect," the prime minister told reporters. "We also discussed the security in Iraq, the development of the economy and reconstruction and terrorism."
McCain stressed it was important to maintain the U.S. commitment in Iraq, where a U.S.-Iraq military operation is under way to clear Al Qaeda in Iraq from its last urban stronghold of Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad.
"We recognize that Al Qaeda is on the run, but they are not defeated," McCain said after meeting al-Maliki. "Al Qaeda continues to pose a great threat to the security and very existence of Iraq as a democracy. So we know there's still a lot more of work to be done."
McCain, who arrived in Iraq on Sunday, told reporters that he also discussed with the Shiite leader the need for progress on political reforms, including laws on holding provincial elections and the equitable distribution of Iraq's oil riches.
At a news conference with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, Cheney said that given the nearly 4,000 U.S. troop deaths and billions of dollars spent on the war, it is very important that "we not quit before the job is done."
Cheney credited reductions in violence to President Bush's decision to deploy an additional 30,000 troops to the war zone. He said one of Bush's considerations in whether to draw back more than the 30,000 before he leaves office will be whether the U.S. can continue on a track toward political reconciliation and stability in Iraq.
"It would be a mistake now to be so eager to draw down the force that we risk putting the outcome in jeopardy," said Cheney, on an unannounced visit to Iraq. "And I don't think we'll do that."
Violence has dropped throughout the capital with the U.S. troop buildup as well as a Sunni revolt against Al Qaeda in Iraq and a cease-fire by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.
The U.S. military has said attacks have fallen by about 60 percent since last February.
McCain, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, was accompanied by Sens. Joe Lieberman, an independent, and Republican Lindsey Graham, two top supporters of his presidential ambitions. The weeklong trip will take McCain to Israel, Britain and France.
Police said they found the bodies of three members of a U.S.-allied group fighting Al Qaeda in Udaim, 70 miles north of Baghdad. Members of the mostly Sunni groups have been increasingly targeted by suspected Al Qaeda members seeking to derail the recent security gains.
A bomb in a parked car in Baghdad's central Karradah neighborhood killed three civilian bystanders and wounded nine, police said, while a separate roadside bomb in eastern Baghdad killed one and wounded three others.