In Karbala and Baghdad, they mourned the dead. Throughout Iraq, they blamed the US

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The Independent Online

They began burying the dead in Iraq yesterday. Vast crowds gathered in Karbala and Baghdad, where on Tuesday their fellow Shia were cut down in a series of bombings and mortar attacks. Many in the crowds yesterday shouted slogans against the Americans, who have been blamed almost universally by the Shia for the disastrous security situation in Iraq which led to Tuesday's massacres.

They began burying the dead in Iraq yesterday. Vast crowds gathered in Karbala and Baghdad, where on Tuesday their fellow Shia were cut down in a series of bombings and mortar attacks. Many in the crowds yesterday shouted slogans against the Americans, who have been blamed almost universally by the Shia for the disastrous security situation in Iraq which led to Tuesday's massacres.

In Karbala, they carried 12 or so coffins through the same streets where the screaming victims ran in panic as explosion after explosion went off around them a day before. They were draped with verses from the Koran and flowers.

There were only 12 coffins because, so far, they have only been able to bury those whose body parts they have been able to piece together from the carnage. And as they sifted through the remains, the death toll rose. The head of the United States-appointed Governing Council put the combined death toll from Karbala and Baghdad at 271 yesterday. The Health Minister put it at 169; the Americans said it was 117. The truth is that nobody really knows how many people died.

The fear everyone is talking about is that the massacre could set off Shia revenge attacks against Iraqi Sunni that could spiral into a civil war. But yesterday the anger of the mourners seemed far more directed at the Americans. "No, no America! No, no terrorism!" they chanted.

Both Sunni and Shia leaders urged their followers to avoid sectarian violence. "We are facing critical hours and days ... so open your eyes against the plots of America and Israel to sow dissension," said Sheikh Moayad Naimi, a Sunni cleric.

"If the two sides fight it's the Americans who benefit to find an excuse to stay in Iraq," said Sheikh Raed al-Kazemi, a Shia cleric. In a funeral sermon for those buried in Karbala yesterday. Ayatollah Hadi al-Muddaresi, a senior Shia cleric, said: "Those who did this want a civil war in Iraq, but we will not be drawn into it." As he spoke, supporters of the radical cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, shouted him down: "We want our revenge against Saddam the infidel and against America," they screamed.

As for who was behind the attacks, that remained far from certain yesterday.

American spokesmen have pointed the finger towards Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian associate of al-Qa'ida, who is believed to have fought alongside Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in Afghanistan.

General John Abizaid, the commander of US forces in the Middle East, yesterday told a US congressional committee: "We have intelligence that ties Zarqawi to this attack." But the US has yet to publish any evidence to prove his involvement.

Al-Qa'ida appeared to take the unusual step yesterday of publicly denying that it was involved in the attack. The London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper yesterday received a letter by e-mail, purporting to come from al-Qa'ida's Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades.

"The American troops have carried out a massacre to kill innocent Shia in Karbala, their infidel city, and in Baghdad," the letter read. "We say to the Muslims that we are innocent of this act." It was not possible to verify the authenticity of the letter.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt of the US occupation forces said 15 people had been arrested in connection with the attacks. He said five were Farsi-speakers, which would appear to mean they were Iranians. That would sit oddly with the accusations against al-Qa'ida. The overwhelming majority of Iranians are Shia - and there are believed to be no Shia in al-Qa'ida. It would be surprising if a Shia were involved in the attacks, a desecration of the Shia's most holy festival and shrines.

The US administrator Paul Bremer said yesterday it was "increasingly apparent" that a large part of terrorism comes from outside Iraq, and promised to increase controls of Iraq's borders to prevent infiltrators from entering the country.

As many as 100,000 Iranians were believed to have been in Karbala for the Ashoura ceremony, and Iran yesterday sent 50 ambulances to bring home its dead and wounded. More than 20 Iranians died.

Confusion remains over the arrests. Brigadier General Kimmitt said yesterday that earlier reports that a fourth suicide bomber whose explosive belt failed to go off had been caught in Baghdad were untrue. US forces said yesterday it now appeared that the attacks in Karbala included explosives brought into the city on hand-drawn wooden carts used to carry supplies and old and crippled worshippers, as well as one suicide bomber and possibly some mortar attacks.

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