Two Britons die in gun attack on Karbala pilgrims

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The Independent Online

Two Britons were killed and three others injured in an attack by gunmen on pilgrims returning from the Shia holy city of Karbala to the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

It is believed the victims all lived in south-east England and were on a religious tour. According to Iraqi police sources, the two dead men were of Pakistani origin and the three injured are of Indian and South African extraction.

A member of London's Shia Muslim community confirmed the identity of the two dead men as Saifuddin Makai, 39, from Streatham, and Husain Mohammedali, 50, from Harrow.

The three injured are Ali Azgar, Zahra Hassan Bahayi and Yahya Bahari Males, the latter two of South African background. The group had been on a visit to two of the cities considered the most holy by Shia - Najaf and Karbala - and were on their way back to the capital when their four-wheel drive car broke down.

They were being given a lift by the driver of a passing blue Kia minibus when armed men in two cars overtook them and opened fire. The minibus driver has told the police that he had encountered the British group by chance and had no idea who the attackers were.

Shabbir Abidali, a trustee of the Husseini mosque at the Mohammedi Park Masjid Complex in Northolt, west London, where the two dead men had worshipped for around 15 years, said the men had visited the shrines in Iraq several times. They were coming to the end of their four-day pilgrimage and were near the airport when they were killed.

Mr Makai, who was of Asian origin and had three school-age children, emigrated from Nairobi, Kenya, around 20 years ago. He ran a travel exchange business from Streatham with his wife and was a "very devout member of the community", according to Mr Abidali.

He added: "He was a wonderful man. He was a very active member of the community and was known for his generosity."

Mr Mohammedali, who had four young children, was of Asian origin and had left Uganda to make a life in Britain around 20 years ago. He owned a double-glazing business and his wife has a business in interior design.

Mr Abidali, who has known both men for years, said Mr Mohammedali that had been "a very loving father and a very capable man who will be greatly missed". He had been in touch with both men's families who were "devastated and shocked" by the news.

Zahra Hassan Bahayi, the injured woman, was treated at Yarmoukh hospital in Baghdad. She said: "We were just coming along and heard shots. We immediately got down. I don't know what happened and I did not see anything."

It is unclear if the group were targeted because of their citizenship. Iraqi police said they were looking at reports that the group had stopped a number of cars before being picked up and that their presence would have become quickly known in the locality.

However, the area where the attack occurred, near the town of Mahmudiyah in the so-called Triangle of Death, has experienced increasing numbers of attacks on Shia travellers, often going to and from the holy cities, by Sunni gunmen.

The injured Britons were later visited by American soldiers at Yarmoukh hospital and then moved to the Ibn Senna hospital within the heavily fortified Green Zone where US and British officials and members of the Iraqi government live and work.

An Iraqi police officer said: "The place where the incident happened, about 5km outside Mahmudiyah, is very dangerous for any foreigners. They were followed and then shot. What we do not know is at what stage they became a target."

Foreign fighters, some claiming allegiance to al-Qa'ida in Iraq, which is run by the Jordanian-born insurgent leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, have made the three towns of the triangle - Mahmudiyah, Latafiyah and Iskandariyah - their base of operations in the past. Several offensives were launched in the area by American and Iraqi government forces before and after last year's major operation against Fallujah.