Suicide blasts in Iraq kill 54 on sacred day

Attackers strike as Shiites hold Ashura activities

U.S. soldier among the dead

Wave of bombings called worst in nearly a year

February 20, 2005|By T. Christian Miller | T. Christian Miller,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Iraq's Shiite Muslims marked their holiest day with emotional displays of faith yesterday, defying a bloody wave of suicide attacks that killed at least 54 people and wounded more than 130 others.

In the sacred Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, religious celebrants scored themselves with chains and swords in memory of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson.

Despite the violence, the public celebration of the Ashura holiday added to a sense of hope among some Shiites that has grown since January, when Shiite-backed political parties swept to victory in national elections.

"The terrorists will not succeed," said Majeed Abed Kareem, 62, who traveled hundreds of miles from his home in southern Iraq to Karbala to join in the celebrations, which were banned under Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni.

More than two dozen Iraqi soldiers, 27 civilians and a U.S. soldier were killed in eight suicide bombings and a mortar attack, as blasts thundered through Baghdad in what was believed the worst wave of suicide bombings in nearly a year.

It was the deadliest day since the elections nearly three weeks ago, when more than 35 Iraqis were killed in attacks that also left 31 insurgents dead.

Still, the violence was less than U.S. and Iraqi security forces had feared.

The toll was not as high as at last year's Ashura, when as many as 200 people were killed and hundreds more injured in Karbala and Baghdad after suicide bombers entered crowds of worshipers to detonate themselves.

Police officials had worried that Shiite worshipers would come under attack by Iraq's insurgents, believed to be dominated by Sunnis who see the Ashura celebrations as heretical. Most of those killed yesterday were Shiites.

Electoral uncertainty made the risk seem greater, as Shiite leaders continued to debate yesterday how best to ensure the country's stability by reaching out to Sunnis, who largely stayed home on election day.

With majority Shiites poised to take control of the country for the first time in modern Iraqi history, the interim government and Shiite politicians vowed that the bloodshed would not cause the nation to spiral into civil war.

The suicide bombings were attempts "to create a religious war within Iraq. Iraqis will not allow this to happen, Iraqis will stand united as Iraqis foremost, and Iraq will not fall into sectarian war," said Mouwaffaq al-Rubaie, the national security adviser for the interim government.

To prevent a recurrence of last year's violence, Iraq closed its borders with Iran, halting streams of Shiite pilgrims from joining the celebrations.

Iraqi security officials and Shiite religious militias also saturated holy sites throughout Iraq, in some cases shutting off streets to traffic and setting up checkpoints every 30 feet.

Iraqi police commanders hailed their security measures, which were achieved with a minimum U.S. presence.

In Karbala and the northern city of Kirkuk, police also announced the capture of nine terrorist suspects, including Haidar abu Bawari, described as a top aide to Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and Harbi Abd Khudair, leader of an insurgent cell in Kirkuk.

Police also began patrolling the Sunni Triangle city of Fallujah after a three-month absence.

"Our national guard, with the new army, has transformed from a tool in the hand of the tyrant [Hussein] to kill people ... to a system which protects people," said Maj. Waleed Fakir Abaas, deputy commander of the national guard in Karbala.

A delegation of U.S. senators visiting Iraq also expressed guarded optimism about Iraq's future after daylong meetings in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone with U.S. and Iraqi officials.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said it was clear that a long-term U.S. presence was needed to ensure stability.

The most serious incidents yesterday occurred in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiya, site of one of the most important Shiite mosques.

In the day's deadliest incident, a suicide bomber boarded a bus and detonated an explosives-laden vest. Seventeen people were killed, including a child, and 41 others were wounded, according to wire service reports.

U.S. military units sealed the area after the blast in a central square in Kadhimiya, which was filled with worshipers.

In another incident in Kadhimiya, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Nada mosque, killing seven Shiites, including three national guard members, according to wire reports citing a police officer.

The blast also injured 55 people.

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

Latest developments

The violence: Eight suicide bombers strike in a wave of attacks that killed 54 people, including an American soldier.

The reaction: With majority Shiites preparing to take a leading government role, Shiite politicians vow the bloodshed will not lead to civil war.

The counterstrike: Authorities report arresting two insurgent leaders, including a top aide to Jordanian-born militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

Associated Press

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