'Dozens killed' as mortar hits mosque near Najaf

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The Independent Online

A mortar attack on the main mosque in the Iraqi city of Kufa killed 25 people and wounded 60 others today.

A mortar attack hit the main mosque in the Iraqi city of Kufa today, killing 27 people and wounding 63 others as they prepared to march on the violence–wracked city of Najaf, hospital officials and witnesses said.

Hours after the attack, unidentified gunmen opened fire on thousands of Shiite Muslim marchers heading to Najaf, killing three and injuring 46, witnesses said.

Thousands of people were crowded around Kufa's golden–domed mosque at the time and ambulances raced to the scene to take scores of wounded to a nearby hospital. Dead bodies lay around the mosque compound, a stronghold of followers of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al–Sadr, witnesses said.

Hussam al–Husseini, an al–Sadr aide, said one mortar shell hit the mosque compound itself and two others hit near the mosque gates. Others said there were only two explosions.

Blood was splattered on concrete pavement in a courtyard beside the mosque and a pair of sandals stood empty nearby, according to Associated Press Television News Footage. Shrapnel from the explosions tore small chunks out of walls and the pavement, but there appeared to be no serious structural damage to the compound.

It was unclear who fired the mortars. US forces have battled Shiite insurgents loyal to al–Sadr in neighboring Najaf and sporadically in Kufa for three weeks.

"We were gathering outside and inside the mosque preparing to head to Najaf when two mortar shells landed, one inside the mosque and the other on the main gate," said Hani Hashem, bringing an injured friend to the hospital. "This is a criminal act. We just wanted to launch a peaceful demonstration."

After the attack, thousands of demonstrators loyal to al–Sadr marched on nearby Najaf, but came under fire from a base between the two cities housing Iraqi national guardsmen and US troops, witnesses said.

The marchers scattered when the gunfire broke out. Casualties were carried away in private civilian vehicles and ambulances.

The day before, gunmen shooting from the same base killed eight people and wounded 56 others who were taking part in what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration supporting al–Sadr, according to footage from Associated Press Television News and hospital officials.

Iraq's top Shiite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini Al–Sistani, returned home to Iraq yesterday from a trip to London, and was heading to Najaf today in a bid to end the fighting.