Bombs Target Iraqi Shiites

Teammates surround Chicago Bears wide receiver Devin Aromashodu (19) after his touchdown reception in overtime that gave the Bears a 36-30 win over the Minnesota Vikings in Chicago, Monday, Dec. 28, 2009. AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh

A series of coordinated blasts struck Shiite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and Karbala on Tuesday as thousands of pilgrims converged on the climactic day of the sect's most important religious festival.

At least 143 people were killed and dozens wounded, Coalition officials said.

There were varying reports on the cause of the blasts. Stunned witnesses blamed suicide bombers or planted explosives. But a U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad and an Iraqi police spokesman in Karbala reported that mortars were fired at the shrines.

U.S. intelligence officials have long been concerned about the possibility of militant attacks on the Ashoura festival, and coalition and Iraqi forces bolstered security around Karbala and other Shiite-majority towns in the south during the pilgrimage.

Last month, U.S. officials released what they said was a letter by a Jordanian militant outlining a strategy of spectacular attacks on Shiites, aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.

In Pakistan, armed men opened fire on Shiites marking the holiday, killing at least 29 people and wounding 150 others. It was unclear if the attack was connected to the incidents in Iraq.

In other developments:

  • Insurgents threw a grenade into a U.S. Army Humvee as it drove down a Baghdad road, 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.

  • 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.

  • In Najaf, near Karbala, police Monday night found and defused a bomb hidden near the shrine of Imam Ali, the most important Shiite saint, Iraqi Police Capt. Imad Hussein said. Three sticks of dynamite with a timer were stuffed inside a water pipe 30 yards from the shrine, he said, adding that if it had gone off, the explosion would have injured or killed many.

  • Australia's Foreign Minister on Tuesday denied that he pressed one of the nation's intelligence agencies to change its assessment of the threat of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction to justify sending troops to Baghdad.

  • One in 10 children dies before turning a year old in an Iraqi health care system in disarray after years of neglect, last year's war and the looting that followed it. U.S. and Iraqi health officials who toured children's health facilities in recent days say simple measures, including basic hygiene, can help cut that rate in half within two years.

  • Iraqi politicians agreed early Monday on an interim constitution with a wide ranging bill of rights and a single chief executive, bridging a gulf between members over the role of Islam in the future government. A source says the new constitution, a key step in the U.S. plan to turn over power on June 30, is expected to be signed by top American administrator L. Paul Bremer on Wednesday. The charter would remain in effect until a permanent constitution is drafted and ratified next year.

  • In a statement attributed to rebels fighting the U.S.-led occupation, insurgents pledged not to attack Iraqi police unless they help coalition forces. The statement, signed by the "Mujahedeen in Iraq," also warned Iraqis to stay away from American convoys.

  • About 18,000 National Guard soldiers from four major units have gone on alert for likely deployment to Iraq late this year or in early 2005. The troop rotation now under way is substituting about 110,000 active duty and Guard troops for the approximately 130,000 who have been in Iraq for a full year.

    Ashoura is Shiites' most important holiday. It commemorates the death of a Shiite saint, Imam Hussein, who was a grandson of the prophet Muhammad. He was killed during a power struggle in 680. His death is a key event that split Islam into the Shiite and Sunni factions. In Pakistan, the festival is called Muharram.

    Tuesday's blasts in Karbala 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.

    "We were standing there (next to the mosques) when we heard an explosion. We saw flesh, arms legs, more flesh. Then the ambulance came," said Tarar, an 18-year-old, giving only one name.

    The blasts in Karbala killed 31 people and wounded 100 others, Iraqi police officer Muhammed Saad said.

    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.

    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 courtyard inside the shrine was strewn with torn limbs.

    Officials at three hospitals reported 50 killed in those blasts. Deputy Interior Minister Ahmed Kadhum Ibrahim told CNN that 56 were killed and 230 wounded in Baghdad. The U.S. military put the Baghdad death toll at 10, with 100 wounded.

    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.

    Anger swelled among the survivors. Hundreds of arguments broke out. Some people blamed the Americans for stirring up religious tensions by launching the war. Others blamed al Qaeda or Sunni extremists.
    • Joel Roberts

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