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Medics tend a youngster wounded when a hidden bomb exploded during Ashura ceremonies in downtown Khanaqin, Iraq, on Tuesday. ((Yahya Ahmed/Associated Press))

The climax of the Ashura holy festival became an intense focus of sectarian violence Tuesday as assailants targeted Shia worshippers, killing 36 people in bombings and ambushes in three Iraqi cities.

A man wearing a bomb vest blew himself up outside a Shia mosque in Mandali, a mostly Shia city. At least 16 people were killed and 60 wounded in the attack, police said.

In a separate strike an hour earlier to the north, a bomb planted in a garbage can exploded among scores of Shias, killing at least 13 people near the Iranian border as they performed religious rituals on the last day of Ashura, police said.

The garbage-can bombing targeted the scores of Shia worshippers gathered nearby in downtown Khanaqin, 140 kilometres northeast of Baghdad.

At least 39 people were wounded in that attack, and police said most of the victims were Shia Kurds.

Hundreds had gathered in prayer to mark Ashura, the holiest day on the Shia Islamic calendar. The ceremonies, which culminate today, are meant to commemorate the seventh-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad.

At about 10:30 a.m. in Baghdad, gunmen in two cars sprayed bullets at a bus carrying Shia pilgrims headed to a mosque, killing seven people and wounding seven others, police said.

The surge in violence came a day after Iraq's army said it had killed the leader of a heavily armed cult bent on killing leading Shia clerics and pilgrims during Ashura in the city of Najaf.

The 24-hour gun battles raged in the city on Monday, but were ultimately won by Iraqi troops backed by U.S. and British jets and ground forces. Senior Iraqi security officers said they had captured three gunmen from the "Soldiers of Heaven" cult in Najaf.

Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi, the Iraqi commander in charge of the Najaf region, said the cult's leader was among those who died in the battle. Although he went by several aliases, he was identified as Dia Abdul Zahra Kadim, 37, from Hillah, south of Baghdad.

Members of the cult, which included women and children, planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and kill as many leading clerics as possible, al-Ghanemi said

The U.S. military said Iraqi security forces were sent to the area Sunday after receiving a tip that gunmen were joining pilgrims headed to Najaf for Ashura.

With files from the Associated Press