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Iraq bomber hits Iranian pilgrims, at least nine dead

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - A suicide bomber rammed his car into a bus carrying Iranian Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims in Iraq on Friday, killing at least nine people in an attack likely carried out by Sunni Muslim insurgents trying to ignite sectarian conflict.

Al Qaeda's local wing and other Sunni insurgents have been on the offensive since the start of the year in an attempt - spurred in part by the mainly Sunni rebellion in neighboring Syria - to provoke the kind of Shi'ite-Sunni bloodshed that killed thousands in Iraq in 2006-2007.

Police said that in Friday's attack in Muqdadiya, 80 km northeast of Baghdad, the bomber targeted a convoy of three buses carrying Iranian pilgrims, who often visit Iraq's Shi'ite shrines in the south of the country. At least nine people were killed and 27 wounded, according to police.

"When the buses passed, a white car driving very fast came out of an alley way and hit the second bus, and I saw that bus burst into flames," said Ahmed Ferhan, an Iraqi man injured in the blasts.

An official with Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization told the semi-official Fars news agency that based on preliminary information, 16 Iranians had been killed and 44 wounded in the attack.

Nearly 2,000 people have been killed in attacks in Iraq since April, the highest toll in five years, in surging violence that could tip the country back into all-out inter-communal war.

(Reporting by a Reuters correspondent in Diyala and Zahra Hosseinian in Zurich; writing by Patrick Markey, editing by Mark Heinrich)

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