Death toll up to 68 after blast in Shia holy city

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US forces fired an artillery barrage in southern Baghdad yesterday morning, rocking the capital with loud explosions. In the Shia holy city of Karbala, the death toll from a suicide car bomb attack rose to 68.

The blasts in Baghdad came a day after America announced the deaths of nine US troops, including four killed in separate roadside bombings south of Baghdad and five in fighting in Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of the capital.

US troops also detained 72 suspected insurgents and seized nitric acid and other bomb-making materials during raids yesterday, targeting al-Qa'ida in Anbar, and Salahuddin province.

Authorities in northern Iraq imposed an indefinite curfew in the Sunni stronghold of Samarra after leaflets signed by rival insurgent groups threatened policemen, telling them to quit their jobs and promised to target any oil company that wanted to explore in the area.

Iran, meanwhile, has agreed to attend a US-backed regional conference on Iraq set for this week in Egypt. Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki will lead the delegation to the meetings on 3 May.

The blast in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, took place about 7pm on Saturday in a crowded area close to the shrines of Imam Abbas and Imam Hussein. The shrines were not damaged, police said.

Police first thought the explosion was caused by a parked car bomb, but Ghalib al-Daami, a Karbala provincial council member, said it was a suicide bomber.

Salim Kazim, the spokesman for Karbala health directorate, said the death toll had risen to 68 and 178 wounded. "The explosion was so powerful that it threw me up into the air," said Haidar Ismail, a patient at Imam Hussein Hospital.

Saturday's attack was the second car bomb to strike the city's central area in two weeks. On 14 April, 47 people were killed and 224 were wounded in a car bombing.

* A British soldier was killed by small arms fire in Basra yesterday, the Ministry of Defence said. The soldier, who has not yet been named although his family have been informed, was attacked while on patrol in the Al Ashar district, east of central Basra at about 9.30am.