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143 Killed in Attacks on Iraqi Shiite Shrines

143 Killed in Attacks on Iraqi Shiite Shrines

Posted - Mar. 2, 2004 at 10:21 a.m.



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KARBALA, Iraq (AP) -- Simultaneous explosions ripped through crowds of worshippers Tuesday at Shiite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and the city of Karbala, killing at least 143 people on the holiest day of the Shiite calendar, a U.S. official said. It was the bloodiest day since the end of major fighting.

143 Killed in Attacks on Iraqi Shiite Shrines

The attacks, a combination of suicide bombers and planted explosives, came during the Shiite festival of Ashoura and coincided with a shooting attack on Shiite worshippers in Quetta, Pakistan that killed at least 29 people and wounded more than 150.

Tuesday was the climactic day of the 10-day Ashoura festival, which marks the killing of Shiite saint Imam Hussein in a 7th century battle. It is the most important period in the Shiite religious calendar and draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and other Shiite communities.

143 Killed in Attacks on Iraqi Shiite Shrines

Three suicide bombers set off their explosives in and around Baghdad's Kazimiya shrine, killing 58 and wounding 200, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters. In Karbala, at least one suicide attacker blew himself up and pre-set explosives detonated, killing 85 and wounding more than 100, he said.

A fourth suicide bomber whose explosives did not detonate was captured at Kazimiya, and four people were arrested in connection with the attack in Karbala, Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad. Another bomb was found and defused Monday night in Najaf, the holiest Shiite city, police said.

Iraqi police also arrested four would-be suicide bombers in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Tuesday. Two men -- a Syrian and an Iraqi -- were arrested after a car bomb was found outside the Seyed Ali al-Musawi Mosque. Later in the day, police arrested two women who were wearing explosives-laden belts as they marched in a procession to mark Ashoura.

The bombings produced a wave of Shiite outrage -- much of it directed at U.S. troops in the Iraqi capital. U.S. soldiers who arrived at Kazimiya were attacked by angry crowds throwing stones and garbage, injuring two Americans.

143 Killed in Attacks on Iraqi Shiite Shrines

"This is the work of Jews and American occupation forces," blared a loudspeaker outside the Kazimiya shrine. Inside, cleric Hassan Toaima told an angry crowd, "We demand to know who did this so that we can avenge our martyrs."

U.S. intelligence officials have long been concerned about the possibility of militant attacks during Ashoura. Last month, U.S. officials released what they said was a letter by Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi outlining a strategy of spectacular attacks on Shiites, aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.

Iraq's Governing Council blamed the attacks on "terrorists" seeking to enflame sectarian divisions in the country.

In a show of unity, Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish council representatives appeared before journalists, calling on Iraqis to maintain calm "in order to cheat our enemies of the chance to inflict evil on the nation."

The council declared three days of mourning and was considering delaying the signing of an interim constitution, which had been planned for Thursday, U.S. coalition spokesman Dan Senor said.

Also Tuesday, insurgents threw a grenade into a U.S. Army Humvee as it drove down a Baghdad road, killing one 1st Armored Division soldier and wounding another. The death brings to 548 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the United States launched the Iraq war in March. Most have died since President Bush declared an end to active combat on May 1.

In Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, five large blasts went off shortly after 10 a.m. near the golden-domed shrine of Imam Hussein and another shrine. The explosions hurled bodies in all directions and sent crowds of pilgrims fleeing in panic.

Dead and wounded were loaded onto wooden carts normally used to ferry elderly pilgrims around holy sites. Bodies ripped apart by the force of the blasts lay on the streets.

At about the same time, three explosions went off inside and outside Baghdad's Kazimiya shrine, which contains the tombs of two other saints. Panicked men and women dressed in black fled, screaming and weeping, as ambulances raced to the scene.

Crowds of enraged survivors swarmed nearby hospitals, some blaming Americans for stirring up religious tensions by launching the war, others blaming al-Qaida or Sunni extremists.

Stone-throwing Iraqis attacked U.S. Army medics trying to help wounded at Kazimiya, driving the U.S. troops back into their high-walled compound then trying to storm the gates. Soldiers threw smoke grenades and fired shotguns into the air to drive away the mob.

Before Ashoura, U.S.-led coalition officials said they were increasing security in Shiite areas. Polish troops patrol the Karbala region.

Kimmitt said that while U.S. troops usually set up an "outer cordon" around such high-security events, they stay far away from holy sites like shrines as mosques out of respect for the faithful.

However, Sheik Hamed Khafaf, a spokesman for Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini, accused American soldiers of not doing enough to improve security.

The Kazimiya blasts went off inside the shrine's ornately tiled walls and outside in a square packed with street vendors catering to pilgrims. The courtyard inside was strewn with torn limbs and picnic baskets. The streets outside were littered by thousands of shoes and sandals belonging to worshippers who had been praying inside.

Hundreds of armed Shiite militiamen swarmed around the shrine, and a U.S. helicopter hovered overhead. Black mourning banners traditionally hung during Ashoura were in tatters. Posters of prominent Shiite clerics were stained with blood.

In the southern city Najaf, near Karbala, police on Monday night found and defused a bomb hidden near the shrine of Imam Ali, the most important Shiite saint, Iraqi Police Capt. Imad Hussein said.

The Najaf shrine was attacked on Aug. 29 by a massive car bomb that killed more than 85 people, including Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

In the letter released by the U.S. military last month, al-Zarqawi, an extremist believed linked to al-Qaida, wrote that stepped-up attacks were needed to disrupt the planned handover of power to the Iraqis on June 30.

Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite member of the Iraqi Governing Council, told CNN that Tuesday's attacks bore al-Zarqawi's fingerprints.

"This is a message from Zarqawi to the Iraqi people and we received the message. It is written in blood now," al-Rubaie said after visiting the Baghdad shrine.

(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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