KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - Two bombs tore into crowds of pilgrims in the holy Iraqi Shi'ite city of Kerbala on Monday, killing at least 12 and wounding dozens as hundreds of thousands of people streamed in for a religious rite, officials said.
The first bomb exploded in a car park on the outskirts of the city where pilgrims taking part in the annual Arbain event had parked their vehicles, killing between four and six people, according to Iraqi Deputy Health Minister Khamis al-Saad and security officials. Forty-nine were wounded, said Saad.
A few hours later a second car bomb killed another eight to 10, and wounded around 92, around 10 km (six miles) north of Kerbala, Saad and local hospital officials said.
The explosions occurred despite the deployment of 120,000 police and soldiers during Arbain, a major Shi'ite ceremony that has been regularly targeted by Sunni Islamist al Qaeda and other militants since the 2003 fall of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
"It's difficult for us to control every inch of the province. There are waves of pilgrims," an army captain said.
Iraq has been rocked by a series of blasts in recent days ahead of the culmination on Tuesday of Arbain. More than 100 pilgrims, police recruits and police have been killed in an area ranging from Kerbala to mainly Sunni areas north of Baghdad.
The attacks pose a challenge to Iraqi security forces and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's newly appointed Shi'ite-led government as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw fully this year.
Al Qaeda's Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq, claimed credit in a statement posted on Sunday night for recent suicide attacks on police, describing police recruits killed in Saddam's hometown of Tikrit just under a week ago as "treacherous daggers".
Overall violence in Iraq has abated sharply since the peak in 2006/07 of the sectarian carnage unleashed after the U.S.-led invasion. But bombings and shootings carried out by Sunni Islamist insurgents, groups allied to Saddam's former Baath party or Shi'ite militia continue on a daily basis.
Many pilgrims in Kerbala seemed resigned to the threat.
"We will continue to do our rites for Hussein and to visit the city in spite of the explosions, until the enemies of Islam who are carrying out these explosions get bored," said Fatma Madloul, 40, a pilgrim from Nassiriya carrying a green flag.
"We came to Kerbala to send a message to them -- the more they blow us up the more determined we will be to continue on our path of defying the enemies of Iraq."
Arbain marks the end of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and a central figure of Shi'ite Islam. Imam Hussein was killed in a 7th Century battle and his followers believe he was buried in Kerbala.
The annual Arbain pilgrimage draws hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Shi'ite Muslims from Iraq, neighbouring Iran and other Shi'ite communities in the Muslim world. Sunni Islamists like al Qaeda view Shi'ites as apostates.
Shi'ite religious events were banned in Iraq under Saddam.
(Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, Waleed Ibrahim, Ahmed Rasheed, Khalid al-Ansary and Suadad al-Salhy in Baghdad, and Sami al-Jumaili in Kerbala; writing by Michael Christie; editing by Mark Heinrich)