A suicide bomber detonated a belt of explosives on his body near a highly revered Shiite shrine in southern Iraq yesterday, killing at least 35 people and injuring 122.

The bomber blew himself up while being patted down by policemen near the Imam Ali mosque in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said Dr Munthir al-Ithari, the head of Najaf's health directorate.

The Iraqi army said the death toll was 35, with 122 injured. Two Iranian pilgrims were among the dead and nine were injured, Iran's official IRNA news agency reported.

Shakir Obeid Hassan, one of those injured, said the suicide bomber was stopped at the last police checkpoint before the shrine, which itself was untouched. All the stores facing the shrine were, however, damaged.

Prime Minister Nouri Mailiki, a Shiite, denounced the bombing as a "barbaric massacre conducted by Takfiris (Sunni extremists) and Saddamists who are seeking to inflame sectarian" passions. A statement by the collective Shiite leadership also issued a similar condemnation.

In other violence yesterday, 18 people were killed in the country, most of them in Baghdad, including four policemen who died in a gunfight with insurgents. Seven bodies were also found yesterday. A Sunni insurgent group, Jamaat Jund alSahaba, or Soldiers of the Prophet's Companions, claimed responsibility for the Najaf bombing. It warned Shiites to stop killing unarmed Sunnis, "otherwise wait for such operations that will shake your regions like earthquakes".