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Attacks on Iraq Shi'ites assailed across the globe
Updated: 2004-03-03 13:48

Western governments, Muslim clerics and several Arab states Tuesday denounced coordinated suicide attacks in Iraq, which tore through Shi'ite worshippers to kill at least 170 people, as efforts to split the country.

A member of Iraq's U.S.-backed Governing Council blamed the attacks on foreign groups bent on fomenting sectarian violence after U.S.-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government last year.

Britain, Germany and France condemned the attacks outside mosques in Baghdad and the holy city of Karbala as pilgrims marked Ashura, one of the holiest days in the Shi'ite calendar.

"The purpose...is to try and set the different religious communities in Iraq against each other, to destroy the progress in Iraq, to cause the maximum amount of dissent, division and hatred," British Prime Minister Tony Blair told reporters.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana condemned "these heinous acts of violence, and the criminals, who have turned the holy day of Ashura into a nightmare and a bloodbath for so many Iraqis, Pakistanis and pilgrims from other countries."

Condemnation also came from Sunni and Shi'ite leaders who urged Muslims to unite against those trying to divide them but also leveled blame at the U.S.-led occupation forces.

Shi'ite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani faulted the occupation forces for failing to control the borders and prevent infiltrators "and not strengthening Iraqi national forces and supplying them with the necessary equipment to do their jobs."


Iraq's northern neighbor, Turkey, called on "all segments of the Iraqi population to act reasonably during this sensitive period, to not join the games that aim to spark an ethnic or sectarian conflict."

The attacks came a day after Iraq's Governing Council agreed an interim constitution, laying the foundations for U.S. plans to return power to Iraqis by June 30.

Iraq's U.S. governor, Paul Bremer, said: "The terrorists want sectarian violence because they believe that is the only way they can stop Iraq's march toward the democracy."

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, after meeting Jordan's King Abdullah in Berlin, said the bombings highlighted the need for a greater U.N. role but undermined its ability to play one.

"We both believe it is now important to do everything to achieve a stable and democratic Iraq and we also agree that this requires a special role for the United Nations, a process which surely will be very difficult to implement as is clear when looking at today's terrible attacks in Iraq," Schroeder said.


King Abdullah, who also visited London, said the attacks were "just another element of extremism under the umbrella of al Qaeda or its affiliates. We have seen that signature before."

He said it was a blatant bid to pit Sunnis against Shi'ites.

A Shi'ite Governing Council member, Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, blamed the attacks on Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian whom Washington suspects of working for the al Qaeda network.

U.S. forces in Iraq said last month they had intercepted a computer disc with a letter from Zarqawi urging suicide bomb attacks on Shi'ites to inflame sectarian tension in Iraq.

"The civil war and sectarian strife that Zarqawi wants to inflict on the people of Iraq will not succeed. Zarqawi failed, his gang and their evil plans have failed," al-Rubaie said.

"Sunnis, Shi'ites, Arabs, Kurds, Assyrians, all Iraqis are determined to move forward," he said. "United we stand and we go forward to build a new Iraq."

Iraqi Sunni cleric Ahmed Abdel Ghafour al-Samarai said those trying to incite sectarian strife would not succeed.

"This was an invisible hand fanning sectarian discord...but we will not let them get away with this," he told the Al Arabiya television channel.

Sheikh Ali Salman, a Shi'ite cleric in Bahrain, the only Gulf Arab state with a Shi'ite majority, called for unity.

"I hope this event will not trigger a reaction in the wrong direction," he said at an Ashura ritual in Manama. "All Muslims should work together to build a peaceful democratic Iraq."

Between 40 and 50 Iranian Shi'ite pilgrims were killed or injured in the blasts, according to Iranian officials.

"Unfortunately the continued presence of occupation forces has not provided security for the Iraqi people and they (the occupiers) should accept their responsibility for this incident," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi.

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