Shiite faithfuls march to Karbala for Arbaeen in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, December 17, 2013. Image Credit: AP

Baquba, Iraq: An Iraqi policeman sacrificed himself on Wednesday as he tried to protect Shiites, embracing a suicide bomber just moments before the man exploded, officials said.

The bomber struck in the Khales area northeast of Baghdad, killing five people and wounding 10, a police colonel and a doctor said.

The colonel said one of the dead was a policeman who had been guarding the visitors. He threw his arms around the bomber just before the attack in a bid to shield others.

The policeman was Ayyub Khalaf, 34, who was married and had two children, his friend Sa’ad Naim said.

“Ayyub was martyred while defending pilgrims, and his name will be an eternal symbol because he saved the lives of dozens of innocents,” Naim said.

“We will take revenge on the Al Qaida terrorist organisation,” he added.

The Khales bombing was the latest in a wave of attacks targeting Shiites, including two in Baghdad province that killed at least eight visitors on Tuesday, and two car bombings that took the lives of at least 24 dead on Monday.

Hundreds of thousands of people, many of them on foot, visit the holy city of Karbala during the 40 days after the annual commemoration marking the death of the Prophet Mohammad’s [PBUH] grandson, known to Shiites as Imam Hussain.

The 40th day, known as Arbaeen, falls on December 23 this year.

Militants, including those linked to Al Qaida, frequently target members of Iraq’s Shiite majority, whom they consider to be apostates.

Also on Wednesday, a roadside bomb in the northern city of Mosul killed two people and wounded two others, and gunmen killed two soldiers and wounded two in an attack on a checkpoint, officials said.

Violence has reached a level this year not seen since 2008, when Iraq was just emerging from a period of brutal sectarian killings.

More people were killed in the first eight days of this month than in all of December last year.

More than 6,550 people have been killed since the beginning of 2013, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.