Bomb kills 25 and injures 70 at Iran's holiest shrine

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AT LEAST 25 people were killed and more than 70 were injured yesterday when a bomb exploded in a crowded prayer hall at Iran's holiest shrine. An earlier tally of eyewitness reports said that 70 people had died, which would have made the blast at the mausoleum of Imam Reza in Mashhad, the worst terrorist atrocity in Iran since 1981. It was the first attack on such a holy place.

Authorities blamed the opposition group, Mujahedin Khalq, but the Iraqi-backed dissidents condemned the bombing. Police later said they had arrested several people. A statement issued through the Iranian news agency said the government would not 'tolerate such an impudent act at a holy place on such a sacred occasion. The hands of vengeance will choke the throats of all those blind- hearted (people) who had masterminded such a dreadful crime.'

The attack was timed to cause the maximum number of casualties. The shrine was packed with self-flagellating worshippers, celebrating Ashura, the most important of the Shia days of mourning, marking the death of Imam Hussein 1,300 years ago. (It was the Imam's death which deepened the schism between Sunni and Shia Muslims.)

There has been substantial political unrest - including a series of terrorist explosions - in Iran in recent months. The authorities have blamed Iraqi agents and their 'puppets', or the Mujahedin Khalq, an armed opposition group based in Baghdad and backed and financed by Iraq.

Three weeks ago, the Iranian Information Minister, Hojjatolislam Ali Fallahiyan, accused Iraq of sending 24 agents and saboteurs to Iran. He said at least 14 had been arrested but the remainder were carrying explosives 'to undermine the security, peace and stability' of the Shia Islamic regime in Iran.

Last February, riots broke out in Zahedan, the capital city of the Eastern Province of Sistan and Baluchistan, after news reached the population that a Sunni mosque had been destroyed in Mashhad to make way for a Shia mosque.

The local Sunni majority rampaged through the city, fighting the Revolutionary Guards. Scores on both sides were killed or wounded.

In February, President Hashemi Rafsanjani was the target of a failed assassination attempt, which the authorities blamed on foreigners.

Iranian sources with access to the Information (intelligence) Ministry have reported a wave of arrests among both the armed forces and the clergy. One dissident ayatollah reported 'more than 300 arrests' in Tehran and among the mullahs in Qom, the cradle of the Iranian revolution.

'Everybody is getting arrested, whether followers of Rafsanjani or others. It's the result of the feud between the President and the spiritual leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).'

Last night there were unconfirmed reports of explosions in predominantly Sunni areas of south Tehran and Zeydar.