Violence in Iraq kills dozens more

After 3 days of attacks, about 190 Shiite pilgrims dead

March 08, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Baghdad -- Marching under blood-spattered banners, mourners carried coffins yesterday through streets still littered with pieces of flesh and debris, as the death toll from three consecutive days of attacks on Shiite Muslim pilgrims climbed to 188.

At least 30 people were killed in fresh attacks yesterday on some of the more than 1 million pilgrims streaming to the holy city of Karbala for weekend rites commemorating the death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad and one of Shiite Islam's holiest figures.

Overwhelmed health officials said a lack of blood, medicine or ambulances to respond to the carnage contributed to the escalating toll.

The persistent attacks on Shiite Muslims came despite a major U.S. and Iraqi crackdown in Baghdad, which officials believe has contributed to a drop in nightly execution-style killings blamed mostly on Shiite militiamen. Police in Baghdad said they recovered 10 unidentified bodies yesterday, compared with the toll of more than 30 on many days before the security plan was launched Feb. 13.

The deployment of thousands of extra troops in Baghdad, however, has not deterred the bombings, drive-by shootings and other attacks blamed on Sunni Arab insurgents.

In Balad Ruz, a religiously mixed town northeast of the capital, a suicide bomber walked into a cafe frequented by members of the ethnic Kurdish minority and blew himself up before dusk yesterday, police said. At least 26 people were killed and 30 injured in the blast.

Three U.S. soldiers were killed and another injured when a bomb exploded during efforts to clear a road of explosives northwest of the capital, the military said. The deaths lifted the number of U.S. personnel killed in the war to 3,188, according to an Associated Press count.

In Baghdad, a car bomb exploded at a checkpoint set up to protect pilgrims along a busy southern highway, killing 22 people, 12 of them police, a U.S. military statement said. Another bomb and scattered shootings directed at pilgrims killed eight more people, police said.

In Hilla, where two suicide bombers killed at least 117 people and injured 170 Tuesday, a procession of mourners carried 23 coffins through the streets. Some waved banners stained with the blood of the victims, chanting: "This is the blood of Hussein's martyrs."

Among the victims were a four-member team providing medical assistance to the pilgrims along the route, health workers said. A doctor working at a nearby surgery also died in the blasts.

But the victim in the broader war, those workers say, is Iraq's health system, which once was an object of regional envy. Hundreds of doctors have been hunted down and killed. Thousands of others have fled. Also, corruption and mismanagement have drained hospitals of desperately needed medicine and equipment.

Health workers were reduced to pleading with survivors to donate blood, said Muhammad Radhi, a hospital employee.

In Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, authorities said they had deployed 10,000 policemen to protect pilgrims, subjecting them to multiple searches on the way to the two major shrines that will be the focus of Saturday's religious rites.

U.S. and Iraqi officials blame the attacks on Sunni Arab insurgents bent on re-igniting sectarian warfare and derailing the latest U.S.-led attempt to secure Iraq.

Iraq's government has invited international leaders to a conference Saturday to enlist the support of neighboring countries to quell the violence. Iran confirmed yesterday that it would attend the meeting, which will provide a rare opportunity for a representative from Tehran to sit down with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad at the negotiating table.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said he would not rule out a meeting between U.S. diplomats and Iranian officials on the sidelines of the meeting Saturday.

Khalilzad has said there are no plans for a one-on-one meeting. But he indicated in an interview with CNN on Sunday that he was ready to discuss U.S. concerns about weapons used against its troops in Iraq, which it believes are coming from Iran.

The attacks on Shiite pilgrims have increased the pressure on Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government, which insisted that Shiite militiamen who protected them in the past keep off the streets to avoid confrontations with U.S. forces during the crackdown.

In a sign of discontent within al-Maliki's alliance, a Shiite Islamist party said yesterday that it was pulling out of the coalition that has dominated parliament since elections in 2005, accusing it of becoming a tool of sectarian interests. The Fadhila Islamic Party, which controls 15 of parliament's 275 seats, is the third-largest voting bloc within the United Iraqi Alliance. Its departure could weaken the Shiite coalition that put al-Maliki in power.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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