BAGHDAD -- Just as Iraqis were welcoming in the new year with hopes for peace, a suicide bomber reminded them of the violent unrest still racking the country with one of the deadliest attacks to hit the capital in months.
At least 35 people were killed and 37 wounded yesterday when the attacker detonated an explosive vest at a crowded Shiite Muslim funeral for a former colonel in Saddam Hussein's army, police said.
The attack appeared to have been timed to coincide with the last day of a three-day funeral ritual when a big meal is served. In a cruel twist, mourners were grieving for the victim of a suicide bombing last week, Nabil Hussein Alwan.
Many of yesterday's victims were members of Alwan's family.
Mohanad Saleh, who owns a travel and transport company in the capital's middle-class neighborhood of Zayouna near where the blast occurred, described the scene as "horrifying."
"The funeral was burning, women screaming and crying, dead people lying on the ground, the wounded hemorrhaging and crying for help," said Saleh, who ran to the scene after hearing the explosion.
Hospital officials said the injured suffered varying degrees of burns, and many of the dead were charred.
"It's a terrible thing to happen to mourners who were already experiencing grief due to the loss of their loved one," Saleh said. "Now they face this terrorism. It's a very agonizing thing to start the first day of the year with."
The bombing occurred hours after Iraqis took to the streets to celebrate New Year's Eve. In Baghdad's safer neighborhoods, residents gathered at parties at two hotels, dancing and setting off small fireworks.
Although 2007 overall was the deadliest year since the war began, the steep decline in violence during the latter half of the year continued in December.
According to statistics released Monday by the Ministry of Health, 481 civilians died nationwide in December in war-related bombings, mortar attacks and sectarian killings, the lowest monthly total of the year.
December also had one of the lowest monthly totals of U.S. military deaths since the war's start in March 2003, with 23 reported by the independent Web site icasualties.org.
At a briefing last week, the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, said suicide attacks using explosive vests and car bombs had inched up in November and December, despite a 60 percent drop in high-profile bombings since March.
At least 24 people were killed and up to 100 injured in two suicide bombings Christmas Day. Alwan and nine other people were killed and 66 wounded in a bombing Friday at Tayaran Square, a busy outdoor marketplace and gathering spot in the capital.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued his New Year's greetings in a statement yesterday on Al-Iraqiya television, calling the end of 2007 an "end of triumphs and success."
This year, he said, will be a year of reconstruction and economic development. He wished for unity and that Iraqis will "forget all the ethnic and sectarian discrimination."
Al-Maliki, whose statement was broadcast from London, where he is undergoing what he called routine medical exams, said he wanted to assure people that he is in "good health, thanks to God."
In other violence, a bomb exploded in northern Baghdad yesterday morning, injuring four American soldiers and seven civilians, the U.S. military said.
The military also reported the death of a soldier from a noncombat-related injury near the Qayyarah Airfield West. The name of the soldier, who died Monday, was not released, pending notification of family. The incident is under investigation.
In Balad, seven Iraqi police officers, including a station chief, were killed in clashes yesterday between Iraqi security forces and gunmen, police said.
Kimi Yoshino writes for the Los Angeles Times.