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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Twin Bombings in Iraq Kill 67

NAJAF, Iraq -- Iraqi authorities detained 50 suspects in connection with an explosion in the Shiite holy city of Najaf that killed at least 54 people and wounded 142, and thousands of mourners attended funerals for the victims on Monday.

Najaf police chief Ghalib al-Jazaari said those arrested included "elements" who had allegedly confessed to having links with the intelligence services of neighboring Syria and Iran.

Car bombs tore through a Najaf funeral procession and a main bus station in the nearby Shiite city of Karbala on Sunday, where at least 13 people were killed and 33 were wounded.

The deadliest attacks in Iraq since July were a bloody reminder that the Shiite heartland in the south -- and not just the Sunni regions of central and northern Iraq -- is vulnerable to the mainly Sunni insurgents aiming to wreck the country's key elections scheduled for Jan. 30.

Meanwhile, the head of the national electoral commission appealed to the security forces to safeguard election officials, after three of them were shot dead in a brazen attack on Sunday by dozens of guerrillas operating openly in the heart of Baghdad.

"We send an appeal to the Iraqi government and all the people to protect our employees," Abdul Hussein Al-Hindawi said Monday. "We have no real protection because we work everywhere in the country and have more than 6,000 employees."

Authorities in Najaf banned cars from entering the downtown area that houses the Imam Ali shrine to prevent future car bombings, Governor Adnan al-Zurufi said Monday.

"Fifty people, some of them from Najaf and others from outside, have been detained. One person detained this morning is a citizen of an Arab country. They are all being interrogated," al-Zurufi told reporters after taking part in a funeral procession attended by thousands of residents.

Najaf's police chief said that among them were people with links to the two neighboring countries.

"The police arrested some elements who confessed that they have links with the Syrian intelligence ... and a person who confessed he had links with Iranian intelligence since 1995," al-Jazaari said.

Iraq's interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi last week accused Syria of harboring senior officials from the ousted regime of former President Saddam Hussein, including his half-brother, Sabaawi. Iraq's Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan has accused both Iran and Syria of supporting terrorism in Iraq.

Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has declared that voting in the elections is a religious duty for all Shiites.

Asked if Sunday's attack had targeted Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who lives several hundred meters from the site of the blast, al-Zurufi said, "We have had information for a long time that his eminence Ayatollah al-Sistani is a possible target but we are taking all measures to protect him."

The deadly strikes highlighted the apparent ability of the insurgents to launch attacks almost at will, despite confident assessments by U.S. military commanders that they had regained the initiative after last month's campaign against militants in Fallujah.

Shiites, who make up around 60 percent of Iraq's population, have been strong supporters of the polls, which they expect will reverse the longtime domination of Iraq by the Sunni Arab minority. The insurgency is believed to include many Sunnis who have lost prestige and privilege since Saddam Hussein's fall.

"As we get closer to elections, there will be an escalation of violence," Allawi predicted on Monday. "We are expecting similar attacks, and these attacks are designed to stop the political process from taking place."

Also Monday, a roadside bomb planted near Baghdad's airport destroyed a U.S. Army Humvee, the military said. One of the soldiers was wounded.

In the town of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, insurgents attacked a U.S. patrol with rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns in the center, witnesses said. It was unclear whether there were any casualties in the clash.