KARBALA, Iraq - Multiple explosions killed at least 143 people, injured hundreds and sent worshipers scrambling for cover yesterday morning here and in Baghdad in what officials described as a coordinated attack during the Shiite Muslim feast of Ashura.
In what was the worst day of bloodshed in Iraq since May, officials said the explosions blasted through throngs of Shiite pilgrims, littering the ground with corpses of men, women and children. The attack appeared to be designed to inflict the largest number of casualties as the blasts occurred on the peak day of the mournful Ashura feast, the holiest Shiite holiday period.
Iraqi and U.S. officials blamed a fugitive Jordanian militant affiliated with al-Qaida, though they offered little proof. Shiite leaders said former loyalists of Hussein may also have been involved.
About 10 a.m., seven or eight blasts went off in Karbala near twin gold-domed mosques. The explosions killed 85 people and injured 230 more, said U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt at a news conference in Baghdad.
At the same time, at least three explosions hit near a mosque in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, causing at least 200 casualties, including 58 deaths, Kimmitt said. Another explosion was reported in the neighborhood of Saidiya. Jawad Khalisi, imam of the mosque in Kadhimiya, said one explosion appeared to be inside the mosque and the others outside the building.
Fears about security were already strong Monday as hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslim pilgrims - including throngs of Iranians - gathered in a fervent demonstration of faith that highlighted the surge in religious zeal in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein's secular regime.
Officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority had voiced concerns about a potentially devastating attack at a time when a terror network led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian affiliated with al-Qaida, is said to be targeting Shiites in an apparent bid to spark a civil war. Kimmitt said that Zarqawi was a chief suspect in the bombings.
Also yesterday, the Associated Press reported that insurgents threw a grenade into a U.S. Army Humvee as it drove through Baghdad, killing one 1st Armored Division soldier and wounding another.
Streets in Baghdad were nearly empty and security was tight, both because of the holiday and fears of violence.
But U.S. forces came under heavy blame from many Iraqis for the explosions.
"I think most people will recognize a fairly objective view is, as we've said, you cannot prevent 100 percent of the terrorist attacks 100 percent of the time. Now, does that make it difficult to win the trust and confidence of the Iraqi people? It does. It is something we have to work on ... everyday," Kimmitt said.
"We can't do that with words. We have to do that with deeds."
The culmination of the feast of Ashura drew worshipers from all walks of life to the streets adjacent to the mosques dedicated to two imams, Hussein and Abbas, who are said to have been killed in battle here more than 1,000 years ago.
Police put the crowd number at 1 million, but that seemed more guesswork than an actual number.
Before yesterday's violence, a sense of religious ecstasy reigned.
Groups of men flogged themselves with metal chains. Others dressed in white robes and prepared to beat their heads with sharp daggers. Still others pounded their chests or heads with their hands as they chanted tributes to Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad who was recalled as a revolutionary reformer and martyr.
Pilgrims young and old, men and women, marched in formation with candles and kerosene lamps. Groups of university students from throughout Iraq hoisted spiritual banners and bounded up and down while repeating rhythmic slogans.
Hundreds of volunteers sifted through the crowd spraying the faithful with fine mists of fragrant water. Others handed out free helpings of sugared tea, dates and other food. Many participants sat on carpets along the curbs and sidewalks and read the Koran, seemingly oblivious to the commotion.
"This is a great day for all of our Shiite brothers," said Ali Abdul-Nabi, a 40-year-old laborer from Baghdad who beamed as he sat with others in the broad, palm-fringed park separating the two huge mosques, their minarets bathed in red light and dazzling. "Under Saddam Hussein, we could never celebrate this. We are thankful to the Americans for helping us get rid of the dictator."
Hussein's security forces long discouraged mass displays of religious faith, at times blocking access for worshipers and even detaining those deemed too demonstrative.
The Baathist government was especially brutal in repressing the nation's Shiite majority.
Tight controls on religious visitors from neighboring Iran were also a hallmark of Hussein's government, which fought a prolonged war against the Islamic Republic in the 1980s. In the new Iraq, however, the floodgates of religion appear wide open.