Iraqi Shiite pilgrims attacked

But violence on Ashoura holiday appears down from last year

January 20, 2008|By Garrett Therolf | Garrett Therolf,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD -- Seven people were killed in Iraq's northwest yesterday when a rocket landed amid a gathering of Shiite Muslims celebrating the most important holiday of the year.

The young pilgrims had just completed re-enactments of the slaying of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson and revered saint, Imam Hussein, when the Katyusha rocket exploded. Another seven people were critically injured in the attack in Tal Afar, 260 miles northwest of Baghdad.

It was the second day of violence surrounding the Ashoura holiday, coming on the heels of deadly clashes in the south between security forces and a Shiite cult intent on disrupting the celebration. The fighting in Basra and Nasiriya ended yesterday, but no clear numbers emerged for the death toll, and some officials lowered it with no explanation.

Some government reports said that more than 80 cult members and Iraqi security officers died, while others said that 43 were killed.

The outbreak of violence in the south was an embarrassment for Iraqi security forces, who had been intent on maintaining order in the wake of Britain's handover in the region in December.

Still, Ashoura passed with fewer deaths compared with previous years, when hundreds died in mortar attacks and car bombings by Sunni insurgents.

In Karbala, where Imam Hussein is said to be buried, an estimated 2 million pilgrims converged for celebrations.

Haider Mahnah, a pilgrim who had traveled south from Baghdad, said: "There is a very large improvement in security this year. We came to Karbala along a very clear, secure road. In past years, there had been so much violence along that road."

In the northern Baghdad district of Kadhimiya, scores more gathered, beating themselves with chains and swords in homage to Hussein's suffering.

Ayoub Sabri, an electricity worker attending with his daughter, said: "I'm not afraid of the risks. Anyone who comes here today should have a strong heart."

Meanwhile, in Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, a suicide bomber attacked a group of Iraqi police and U.S. soldiers standing at the entrance to a police station. The attack was followed by another seconds later. The Iraqi and U.S. forces shot a third man before he was able to carry out another attack. Two Iraqi policemen were killed, police said.

In Najaf, a spokesman for firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr hinted that his Mahdi Army militia might resume activities next month. "We wanted the security forces to have the upper hand, but we have discovered that there are criminal gangs within the security forces," Salah Ubaidi said.

But Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that he expected the militia's cease-fire to continue for at least six months as al-Sadr seeks to regroup.

"The chain of command is disrupted; it is confused," Petraeus said. "The chain of command is fractured somewhat. Some groups certainly have gone off on their own, and some are just criminals."

Garrett Therolf writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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