Thousands of pilgrims flee Iraqi city as gun battles rage

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Gunbattles raged between rival Shia militias after nightfall yesterday, despite a police-ordered curfew in the holy city of Kerbala, where more than one million pilgrims have been ordered to leave after two days of violence claimed at least 35 lives during a religious festival.

Officials said that Mehdi Army gunmen, loyalists of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, began attacking guards around the two shrines that were under the protection of the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

The security officials, who demanded anonymity for security reasons, said at least 180 people have been wounded. They include women and children.

Interior Ministry spokesman Major-General Abdul-Karim Khalaf said "entrances and exits to Kerbala have been secured and more forces are on the way from other provinces".

Other officials said the government in Baghdad was sending buses to Karbala to take some of the pilgrims out of the city.

Gunshots rang out yesterday in the area near the Shia shrines that are the focal point of celebrations marking the birthday of the 12th and last Shiite imam, who disappeared in the 9th century. The festival was to have reached its high point last night and this morning.

Some 30 of the dead were killed in yesterday's fighting, five others died in an outbreak of violence onMonday as pilgrims tried to push past frustratingly slow security checkpoints near the Imam al-Hussein mosque.

General Khalaf said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had dispatched more troops to the area from Baghdad and surrounding areas. He called the gunmen who fought police "criminals," adding that the curfew was imposed because of fears for the large mass of pilgrims.

"The area where the pilgrims were gathering has been evacuated in order to control those criminals," General Khalaf said. He said the gunmen were gathering in three areas in the old town and security forces were chasing them.

A member of the city council said the centre of town was in chaos with pilgrims running in all directions to escape the gunfire. No one, he said, was sure who was doing the shooting. He said a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near the shrine.

"We don't know what's going on," said the councilman, "All we know is the huge numbers of pilgrims was too much for the checkpoints to handle and now there is shooting."