Attacks on Shiite pilgrims March 2 now blamed on 9 suicide bombers

U.S., Iraqi officials discard multiple-methods theory, note joint plan of attacks

March 10, 2004|By Patrick J. McDonnell | Patrick J. McDonnell,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KARBALA, Iraq - Investigators probing the bombings that struck this city last week during a Shiite Muslim religious festival, killing more than 100 people, have determined that the blasts were set off by nine attackers wearing belts rigged with explosives, police said yesterday.

Iraqi and U.S. officials had previously attributed the March 2 blasts to a combination of suicide bombers, mortars, bombs placed in push carts and a land mine. But witnesses described suspected bombers, and analysis of the scenes - including the discovery of detonating devices and metal shrapnel - also points to suicide attackers, police said.

"All of the executors of this operation were suicide attackers," Col. Karim Hachim Sultan, Karbala's deputy police chief, said in an interview outside the heavily fortified police station.

The determination that nine suicide bombers struck in Karbala - along with three who blew themselves up almost simultaneously at a Shiite shrine in Baghdad, 60 miles north - underscores the depth of coordination and organization that went into the plot.

Law enforcement authorities agree that the synchronized assaults in the two cities were jointly planned. That means plotters were able to put together a dozen suicide bombers, equip and train them and send them on their missions without being detected by U.S. or Iraqi forces.

Although Iraq's Governing Council said last week that the death toll in the Karbala-Baghdad attacks was 271, the numbers have since been revised downward.

The current toll in the Karbala bombings stands at about 130 killed and more than 200 wounded, Dr. Abdul Abbas Moussa Al Tamimi, administrator of the Hussein Hospital here, said yesterday. Many were blown apart and were unrecognizable, he said, denying relatives the chance to identify their dead.

More than half of those killed here were Iranian pilgrims, who have descended on Iraq's many Shiite shrines in vast numbers since the fall of Saddam Hussein and a loosening of border controls.

Officials say 70 worshipers were killed in the simultaneous Baghdad bombings, bringing the overall death toll to about 200 - making March 2 the bloodiest day in Iraq since major combat ended last May 1.

In violence yesterday, an American soldier was killed when a roadside bomb exploded while his convoy was passing by, the U.S. military said.

The soldier was the first member of the 1st Infantry Division, which is replacing the 4th Infantry Division, to die in Iraq, said Maj. Debra Stewart.

The soldier died after the Humvee he was riding in was hit by the bomb in Balad Ruz, just east of Baqouba in the Sunni Triangle. A second soldier wounded in the explosion was airlifted to the 31st Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad and listed in stable condition.

In Karbala, the culprits behind the carnage remain unknown, authorities said. U.S. officials have called Abu Masab Zarqawi, an alleged Jordanian terrorist, a prime suspect. But they have offered no concrete proof, beyond a letter allegedly written by Zarqawi - a Sunni Muslim - in which he calls for attacks against Shiites in an apparent bid to spark a civil war.

Iraqi authorities have pointed to a number of potential suspect groups - al-Qaida, Sunni Muslim fundamentalists known as Wahabbis, elements of Hussein's former Baathist regime. But the Iraqis, like U.S. authorities, have not produced solid evidence linking anyone to the bombings.

One theory in wide circulation is an alliance between some Sunni-inspired groups - such as al-Qaida - and operatives of the former government, which was resolutely secular. Proponents of this theory say a foreign-based militant group could not have emerged in postwar Iraq so lethally without the assistance of former Baathist intelligence agents with intimate knowledge of the country, extensive contacts and access to cash.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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