Car bomb strikes religious pilgrims in Iraq


KUFA, Iraq -- A suicide bombing yesterday in southern Iraq underscored the fragility of Iraq's nascent religious tourism industry, which brings hundreds of thousands of dollars in foreign cash to the economically ravaged region each month.

Meanwhile, skirmishes between U.S. forces and suspected insurgents continued for a second day in and around a 400-bed hospital in the western city of Ramadi, leaving at least one civilian dead and two Iraqi police officers injured, U.S. and hospital officials said.

The suicide bomber blew up his car in the southern city of Kufa, striking Iranian pilgrims visiting religious sites. At least 11 civilians were killed and 50 wounded in the morning blast.

Among the dead were seven Iranians, among a steady flow of about 1,500 religious tourists a day from the neighboring country who visit shrines on bus tours and spend money at hotels, restaurants and shops in the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

The attacker maneuvered his vehicle between two buses parked near the Maitham Tamar shrine, a lesser religious site, before setting off the explosion.

"Suddenly, I felt myself flying with a huge blast before I hit the ground," said Hassan Ahmad, 16, a vendor of religious items who was recovering at Najaf's main hospital.

Political leaders condemned the attack, which appeared aimed at heightening tensions between the country's majority Shiite and minority Sunni Muslim sects.

"The perpetrators of this attack show no respect for Islam and the long tradition of pilgrimage to holy sites," the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said in a statement.

Tensions between the Sunnis and Shiites have mounted since the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. Sunni Arabs play a large role in the insurgency, while majority Shiites now dominate the government.

Iraqi officials reported yesterday the discovery of the bodies of 36 Iraqi men in outlying neighborhoods of the capital. The victims were bound, blindfolded, bore signs of torture and were shot, in the style often attributed to Shiite death squads with ties to the official security apparatuses.

Two car bombs exploded in downtown Baghdad, killing four and injuring 12. An investigative judge, the Iraqi equivalent of a prosecutor, was gunned down as he was being driven through a western neighborhood of the capital.

At least six mortar shells crashed into an electricity facility south of the capital, killing at least one security guard.

Gunmen assassinated a prominent physician yesterday in the northern city of Kirkuk. Dr. Khalida Mohammed Ameen was shot as she left her home for work, police said. Two civilians were killed in the nearby city of Hawija.

In Ramadi, U.S. Marines launched a raid Wednesday to retake the city's main hospital, which military officials said was under the control of insurgents, who had used it to hide weapons.

"The hospital raid was a huge success, not a shot was fired," said Army Lt. Col. Pete Lee, executive officer of the 1st Brigade of the 1st Armored Division, which oversees Ramadi. "Because it is a hospital, you have to think hard, make sure it is right, make sure the conditions are right."

Hospitals, like mosques and churches, are protected buildings under the Geneva Conventions. The U.S. military is allowed to enter protected buildings only when there is evidence that they are being used for enemy combat operations.

Saad Fakhrildeen and Borzou Daragahi write for the Los Angeles Times.

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