Scores killed as bombs and mortars hit Iraq shrines

Muslim Shiite pilgrims targeted on their holiest day
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The Independent Online

Simultaneous explosions ripped through crowds of worshippers at Muslim Shiite shrines in Iraq today, killing at least 143 people in the bloodiest day since the end of major fighting.

The blasts -a combination of suicide bombers and planted explosives - came during the Shiite ceremonies marking Ashoura and coincided with a shooting attack on Shiite worshippers in Quetta, Pakistan that killed at least 41 people and wounded more than 150.

Three suicide bombers set off their explosives in and around Baghdad's Kazimiya shrine, killing 58 people and wounding 200.

At least one suicide attacker blew himself up and a series of explosions went off near the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala, killing 85 and wounding more than 230, he said.

The attacks sparked a wave of Shiite outrage, much of it directed at US troops in the Iraqi capital. Soldiers who arrived at Kazimiya were attacked by angry crowds throwing stones and garbage, injuring two Americans.

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

US Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt said a "prime suspect" in the attacks was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant in Iraq who American officials say is planning spectacular attacks on Shiites aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war and derailing plans to hand over power to the Iraqis on 30 June.

The Iraqi Governing Council, which declared three days of mourning, was considering delaying the signing of a newly agreed interim constitution, which had been planned for Thursday, US coalition spokesman Dan Senor said. The constitution is a key step in the US transfer plans, but Senor underlined that the June 30 handover is not threatened by the violence.

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

Today marked the climax of the 10-day Ashoura ceremonies, the most important religious period in Shiite Islam which marks the killing of Hussein in a 7th century battle. It attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and other Shiite communities to the Iraqi shrines.

In Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, five large blasts went off shortly after 10am near the golden-domed shrine of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam's most beloved saints, and another shrine. The explosions hurled bodies in all directions and sending 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 rocked the inside and outside of 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.

A fourth suicide bomber whose explosives did not detonate was captured at Kazimiya, and six people were arrested in connection with the attack in Karbala, General Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad.

Crowds of enraged survivors swarmed hospitals near the Kazimiya shrine, some blaming Americans for stirring up religious tensions by launching the war, others pointing to Al-Qai'da or Sunni extremists.

Stone-throwing Iraqis attacked US Army medics trying to help wounded at Kazimiya, driving the US 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 the mob off.

Iran said some of its citizens were among the victims, and Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said the United States and its allies are "responsible for security" for the pilgrims at Karbala and in Baghdad.

In Beirut, Sheik Hamed Khafaf, a spokesman for Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini, blamed American soldiers, saying they ignored repeated requests to bolster security for the pilgrims.

Before Ashoura, US-led coalition officials said they were increasing security in Shiite areas. Polish troops keep security in the Karbala region. Kimmitt said that while US 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.

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 US helicopter hovered overhead. Black mourning banners traditional in Ashoura hung in tatters. Posters of prominent Shiite clerics were stained with blood.

In the southern city Najaf, near Karbala, police 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.

US officials have suggested that the Jordanian al-Zarqawi, an extremist believed linked to al-Qa'ida, is behind a number of suicide bombings in Iraq this year. The military said last month it intercepted a letter from al-Zarqawi to al-Qa'ida leaders outlining a strategy of stepped up attacks, including ones on Shiites

"This is a message from Zarqawi to the Iraqi people and we received the message. It is written in blood now," Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite member of the Iraqi governing council, said.