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Karbala, Baghdad blasts kill 143 Iraqis
Updated: 2004-03-03 07:35

Suicide bombers carried out simultaneous attacks on Shiite Muslim shrines in Iraq on Tuesday, detonating multiple explosions that ripped through crowds of pilgrims. At least 143 people were killed and 430 wounded - the bloodiest day since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims pilgrims flee the scene of a blast March 2, 2004 after at least five explosions shook the holy city of Karbala.  [Reuters]
Unofficial casualty reports, however, put the toll in Baghdad and Karbala as high as 223. Authorities said there were about a dozen suicide bombers in the two cities as well as in Basra, several of whom were captured before they were able to detonate their explosives.

U.S. officials and Iraqi leaders named an al-Qaida-linked militant, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, as a "prime suspect" for the attacks, saying he seeks to spark a Sunni-Shiite civil war to wreck U.S. plans to hand over power to the Iraqis on June 30.

But some Shiites lashed out at U.S. forces. Iraq's most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Hussein al-Sistani, blamed the Americans for not providing security on the holiest day of the Shiite calendar.

Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish members of Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council pleaded with Iraqis to remain united - an attempt to avert reprisals. The blasts fanned fear and anger at a time when leaders of the Shiite majority are pressing for more power in a future government after years of oppression under Saddam.

The attacks forced the delay of a milestone in the path toward the U.S. handover - the planned Thursday signing of an interim constitution approved by the Governing Council.

"What we've seen today in these attacks are desperation moves by al Qaeda-affiliated groups that recognize the threat that a successful transition in Iraq represents," Vice President Dick Cheney told CNN.

The devastating explosions came on the climactic day of the 10-day Shiite mourning festival Ashoura commemorating the 7th century martyrdom of the prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein.

The festival was also the occasion of an attack on a Shiite procession two hours later Tuesday in Quetta, Pakistan. At least 42 people - including two attackers - were killed and over 160 were wounded. In Pakistan, the annual rites often spark violence between the Sunni majority and Shiite minority.

Tens of thousands of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran and other Shiite communities were massed around the golden-domed Imam Hussein mosque in the holy city of Karbala and the Kazimiya shrine in Baghdad when the explosions went off about 10 a.m.

In Karbala, women tripped over their long, black robes as they ran. Police wept at the sight of the mangled and torn bodies of pilgrims, their blood pooling in the streets.

"I was walking away from the tea stand, when I heard someone shouting 'Allahu Akbar.' I turned my head and saw a tall, bearded man," said Ali Haidar. "A split second later, he exploded, his clothes flying upward. The sound was deafening. Bodies, feet, arms were everywhere. Pieces of flesh flew at me."

Hameed al-Kafaei, spokesman for the Governing Council, said five suicide bombers struck in Karbala, using TNT, nails and ball bearings.

In Baghdad, wooden carts for ferrying elderly pilgrims were used instead as impromptu gurneys, stacked with the wounded and dead. Torn bodies were sprawled across the mosaic-walled courtyard inside the Kazimiya shrine, and thousands of shoes - left at the shrine's doorstep as the faithful prayed inside - were blown across the square.

"I heard a deafening explosion and bodies began to fly and land next to me," said Amar Dawas, sitting atop a pile of tangled mattresses, head down and scratching his left heel.

"There were also hands and legs which we had to bring down from the roof," said the 24-year-old worker, whose white T-shirt was stained with blood.

Three suicide bombers attacked Kazimiya shrine, killing 58 and wounding 200, while at least one suicide attacker blew himself up at Karbala, where 85 were killed and 230 were wounded, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said.

However, council spokesman Hameed al-Kafaei, visiting Karbala, put the death toll there at 101, including 15 children, with more than 300 wounded. Hours later, a policeman at Karbala's only hospital reported 165 dead there. Some of the more than 200 wounded taken there "are very seriously wounded. Every hour, one or two dies," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Iran said at least 22 Iranians were among the dead. Iranians by the tens of thousands have flooded across the common border with Iraq since Saddam's ouster in April, able to visit the most important Shiite shrines for the first time in decades.

An Iranian vice president, Mohammad Ali Abtani, blamed al-Qaida for the attacks in Iraq and Pakistan. He wrote in a message posted on his personal Web site that al-Qaida considers Shiites more dangerous than their political enemy - the United States.

"The reactionary al-Qaida terror group reached a conclusion ... that they have two enemies: the United States as the political enemy and Shiites as the ideological enemy," Abtahi wrote.

The toll could have been worse. A fourth suicide bomber was captured at Kazimiya after his explosives failed to detonate. Police in the southern Shiite city of Basra discovered two women strapped with explosives marching in an Ashoura procession, and other bombs were found near Shiite mosques in Basra and Najaf, sources told The Associated Press.

U.S. intelligence officials have long been concerned about the possibility of attacks during Ashoura. Last month, U.S. officials released what they said was a letter by al-Zarqawi outlining a strategy of spectacular attacks on Shiites, aimed at pitting Shiites against Sunnis in a bloody civil war.

"The terrorists want sectarian violence because they believe that is the only way they can stop Iraq's march toward the democracy that the terrorists fear," said Iraq's top U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer. "They will lose because the Iraqi people want and will have democracy, freedom and a sovereign Iraqi government."

Coalition spokesman Dan Senor said plans for the June 30 handover would not be effected.

"This was a very sophisticated attack. It was very well coordinated, timed to two significant events" - the Ashoura ceremonies and the signing of the constitution, Kimmitt said. "This clearly shows the signs of a well-organized group."

But much of the outrage of Shiites was directed at the Americans.

"This is the work of Jews and American occupation forces," a loudspeaker outside Kazimiya blared. Inside, cleric Hassan Toaima told an angry crowd, "We demand to know who did this so that we can avenge our martyrs."

A mob of Iraqis assaulted U.S. troops and medics who tried to control crowds and help wounded at Kazimiya, pelting them with stones and forcing their convoy of Humvees back into a nearby walled outpost. Two soldiers suffered broken bones. When the Iraqis tried to storm the outpost, U.S. soldiers fired tear gas to disperse them.

Ayatollah al-Sistani said in a statement on his Web site that "words are insufficient to condemn these hideous crimes." He held coalition forces responsible, saying they have been too slow to control Iraq's borders against infiltrators and have not given Iraqi security forces the necessary equipment.

Kimmitt said U.S. and other coalition troops have a policy of staying away from religious sites and mosques out of respect.

Many Shiites blamed foreigners for the attacks.

"No one would do such a thing to his own country," said Imad Anba, a 33-year-old butcher in Basra. "Show us who they are, show their faces on TV and then hang them where they carried out their crimes."

Kimmitt said he believed a mixture of Iraqis and non-Iraqis carried out the bombings. In Basra, police arrested a Syrian and an Iraqi after discovering a car bomb parked outside a Shiite mosque Tuesday.

Also Tuesday, insurgents threw a grenade into a U.S. Army Humvee as it drove through Baghdad, killing one 1st Armored Division soldier and wounding another. The death brings to 548 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the United States launched the Iraq war in March. Most have died since President Bush declared an end to active combat May 1.

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