Car bomb kills 12 at Najaf cemetery

Attack targets Iraq shrine revered by Shiite majority


NAJAF, Iraq -- A car bomb exploded yesterday near the gates of the sacred Shiite Muslim cemetery here, killing at least 12 civilians and injuring dozens in the latest assault on the country's Shiite majority.

Among the dead and wounded were women and children visiting the graves of relatives at the sprawling cemetery, the most revered in the Shiite faith because it lies next to the shrine of Imam Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad and the sect's most venerated figure.

"Why? Why?" cried Mohammed Hussein Kadhim, whose 14-year- old nephew Karrar bled to death from shrapnel that lodged in his skull. "What had he seen of life?"

The bombing came amid heightened political tensions over stalled talks to form a new Iraqi government. Sunni Arab, Kurdish and Shiite factions have blocked attempts by interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to retain his post for a four-year term. U.S. and Iraqi officials as well as ordinary citizens have decried the parliamentary stalemate.

Al-Jaafari, who has resisted calls to step aside, said yesterday that he would do so if parliament formally rejected his ministerial nominations. But a news conference scheduled to announce the next parliamentary session was canceled as the country enters a four-day holiday.

The lingering impasse and daily eruptions of sectarian violence have also dogged President Bush, who is under increasing pressure to reduce U.S. forces in Iraq. Speaking to an audience of college students in Charlotte, N.C., Bush said that newly elected officials in Baghdad must "get moving" to live up to the Iraqi public's expectations for democracy.

"Part of the process now is to say to the Iraqi leaders: `People said something. Now you need to act,'" Bush said. "The people want there to be a democracy, and it requires leadership, for people to stand up and take the lead."

Police in Najaf said the car packed with explosives avoided several checkpoints and made its way into the section of the Old City surrounding the shrine used to stage funeral processions.

Witnesses said the area was engulfed in fire and smoke. Police flooded the area after the incident and announced a ban on vehicles there until further notice.

The 1:15 p.m. explosion was the most recent in a series of attacks on Shiite religious sites by insurgents seemingly determined to spark a full-scale civil war. The destruction of a revered shrine in Samarra on Feb. 22 sparked a torrent of reprisal killings by Shiite militiamen against Sunnis.

Stretching out into the desert, the Najaf cemetery is considered by Shiites from Lebanon to India as the most important place for burial. For centuries, Shiites worldwide have sought to be interred on its grounds. It was badly damaged during clashes between U.S.-led forces and Shiite militiamen in the summer of 2004.

Iraq's majority Shiites and embittered Sunni Arab minority have been engaged in an often bloody power struggle since the fall of President Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government. Sectarian violence has resulted in thousands of deaths, with many of the Shiite victims brought to Najaf for burial.

Sunnis have increasingly been targeted as well. Yesterday, police in western Baghdad found six bodies, handcuffed and with bullet wounds to the head, in the execution style that is seen by many as the signature of Shiite militias with alleged ties to the Ministry of Interior.

In Basra, Sunni officials announced yesterday the closing of all Sunni mosques for a 48-hour period beginning Tuesday as a protest against near-daily murders of prominent members of the Sunni community in the southern port city.

West of Baghdad, at least seven members of the Iraqi security forces were injured by roadside bombs, and at least two more targeted passing U.S. convoys in Ramadi and Haditha. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

A roadside bomb targeting a police patrol in downtown Baqouba, a volatile, religiously mixed provincial capital northeast of Baghdad, injured six civilians and two police officers.

Borzou Daragahi writes for the Los Angeles Times. Special correspondent Saad Fakhrildeen reported from Najaf.

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