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Blasts rock Baghdad, Kerbala
Updated: 2004-03-02 15:36

Thunderous explosions rocked the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and the Shiite holy city of Kerbala early Tuesday, with dozens of people reported killed or injured.

Iraqis rush injured Shi'ite Muslims pilgrims on a cart away from the scene of a blast March 2, 2004 after at least five explosions shook the holy city of Kerbala.[Reuters]
Video from the scenes showed screaming townspeople running in panic, with some carrying injured victims away from the blast sites. Fire and smoke rose above the crowds.

In Kerbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, five blasts went off shortly after 10 a.m. near two of the most important shrines in Shiite Islam, hurling bodies and sending crowds of pilgrims fleeing in panic.

Three explosions rocked the inside and outside of the Kazimiya shrine in Baghdad at about the same time. Police sealed off the area while panicked people fled screaming and ambulances raced to the scene. Dozens of armed men in civilian clothes tried to maintain order.

Some witnesses at Kazimiya said the blasts were carried out by suicide bombers. The Kazimiya shrine in northern Baghdad contains the tombs of two other Shiite saints, Imam Mousa Kazem and his grandson Imam Muhammad al-Jawad.

The explosions came on the most important day of the month -- Ashoura, on March 2.

The Ashoura festival, which marks the 7th century killing of Imam Hussein, is the most important religious period in Shiite Islam and draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and other Shiite communities to the Iraqi shrines.

The Kerbala blasts struck near the golden-domed shrine where Imam Hussein is buried, in a neighborhood of several pilgrimage sites. After the blasts, Shiite militiamen tried to clear the terrified crowds, firing guns into the air. Two more blasts went off about a half-hour later.

Iraqis push an injured Shi'ite Muslims pilgrim on a cart away from the scene of a blast March 2, 2004 after at least five explosions shook the holy city of Kerbala. [Reuters]
"We were standing there (next to the mosques) when we heard an explosion. We saw flesh, arms legs, more flesh. Then the ambulance came," Tarar, an 18-year-old said, using only one name.

Two armed Iraqi policemen broke down in tears as they walked through the bomb site.

Iraqi militia initially tried to control the crowd and arrested two men the crowd attempted to lynch. Rumors swirled throughout the city as to the cause of the blasts, ranging from mortars fired from outside the town to suicide bombers in the crowd.

One witness said a bomb was hidden near the mosque.

"Many Iranians were killed, I was 10 meters (yards) away, it was hidden under rubbish," one witness, identifying himself only as Sairouz, said.

Loudspeakers from the mosques continued to broadcast recitations from the Quran, only briefly interrupting the Ashoura commemoration to ask the crowd to part so that ambulances could move through the crowd. The mosques were not damaged by the blasts.

The Kazimiya blasts went off inside the shrine's ornately tiled walls and outside in a square packed with street vendors catering to pilgrims. The street outside Kazimiya was littered with thousands of shoes and sandals belonging to worshippers who had been praying inside the shrine. The courtyard inside the shrine was strewn with torn limbs.

Hundreds of gunmen swarmed inside and outside the walled shrine as men wept. A U.S. helicopter hovered over the shrine. Black mourning banners traditional in Ashoura celebrations hung in tatters.

"How is it possible that any man let alone a Muslim man does this on the day of al-Hussein," said Thaer al-Shimri, a member of the Shiite Al-Dawa party. "Today war has been launched on Islam."

The violence comes just a day after Iraq's Governing Council agreed on an interim constitution. The council is expected to sign the document after the end of the Shiite feast Ashoura on Wednesday.

Entifadh Qanbar, spokesman for council member Ahmad Chalabi, said the meeting ended at 4:20 a.m. (8:20 p.m. ET) with "full agreement... on each article."

He said the draft charter will recognize Islam as "a source of legislation" -- rather than "the" source as some officials had sought -- and that no law will be passed that violates the tenets of the Muslim religion.

The constitution is intended to govern the nation until an elected assembly can draft and make into law a permanent charter.

The agreement missed its Saturday deadline, but the handover of power to an Iraqi transitional government will still take place on June 30, according to various officials.

Also Tuesday, a land mine exploded in the Abu Nawas neighborhood of Baghdad, damaging a car used by the Arab television station Al-Jazeera and lightly wounding several staffers.

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