Tens of thousands of Shiites gathered in the holy city of Karbala Monday, and police said they uncovered a cache of explosives and arrested four insurgents for allegedly planning an attack on the pilgrims.
The gathering took place as suicide bombings elsewhere claimed 21 lives. Officials in Baghdad, meanwhile, announced that one of Saddam Hussein's nephews was sentenced to life in prison for funding the violent insurgency, and would stand trial on other charges.
In December, more than 50 pilgrims died in a series of bombings in the city, 50 miles south of Baghdad, and in March 2004 at least 181 people died in coordinated bombings of Shiite pilgrims in Karbala and Baghdad. Both attacks were blamed on Sunni extremists.
Just days before the gathering in Karbala, al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, in a recorded message, declared an all-out war on Shiites and others deemed American collaborators. But Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi said Monday such threats would only "strengthen the defiance" of Iraqis.
Abdel-Mahdi said the Shiite pilgrims heading to Karbala were the "biggest (example of) defiance in the face of threats by al-Zarqawi," according a statement released by the Iraqi presidency.
The explosives cache found near Karbala was discovered late Sunday on farm land on the outskirts of the city, said police spokesman Rahman Mishawi. Three "non-Iraqi Arabs" were arrested, Mishawi said, along with a man armed with several hand grenades who was caught walking with a procession of pilgrims.
Karbala police Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Hasnawi said that the city had been closed off to all vehicles since Friday, and that about 6,000 police and Iraqi army troops were deployed throughout the city. Policewomen would search female pilgrims, and nonresidents were required to obtain prior approval from authorities before being allowed to check in to hotels, he said.
In other developments: A suicide bomber captured before he could blow himself up in a Shiite mosque claimed he was kidnapped, beaten and drugged by insurgents who forced him to take on the mission. The U.S. military said its medical tests indicated the man was telling the truth. Mohammed Ali, who claimed to be Saudi-born and appeared to be in his 20s, said he managed to flee after another suicide attacker set off his bomb, killing at least 12 worshippers Friday as they left a mosque in the northern city of Tuz Khormato. In confession broadcast on state television later that day, Ali told Iraqi interrogators he did not want to bomb the mosque and hoped to go home.In Iraq's second-largest city of Basra, Armed militiamen of the Mahdi Army of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr barricaded streets in central Basra demanding the release of one of their commanders. The local commander was arrested by British and Iraqi forces on Friday. He is accused of launching raids against security forces in the city, police said. Iraq's National Assembly gave final approval Sunday to the nation's new constitution and the United Nations began printing 5 million copies of it immediately for voters to study before they vote on it in an Oct. 15 referendum. Assembly members spent weeks wrangling over the constitution, even after they had said they were finished with it, but in the last few days, they finessed three areas that had stymied final approval. The final version would create two deputy prime ministers; give the central government control over the country's water resources; and, in deference to the Arab League, mentioned Iraq's role in the creation of that organization. U.N. officials here said they hope to print a half-million copies a day, at a cost of about $2 million.Troops manning roadblocks near Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, arrested 12 men suspected of involvement in a string of attacks on Saturday against U.S. and Iraqi troops. Iraqi police reported that 6 U.S. armored vehicles were either destroyed or damaged in the attacks.On Sunday night, a suicide car bomber struck a joint American-Iraqi patrol near Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad, detonating his vehicle and killing 14 Iraqi soldiers, police 1st Lt. Hameed al-Magdami said.In Mahmoudiya, another suicide bomber blew himself up near an Iraqi police commando patrol Monday, killing five policemen and two civilians, and wounding another 13 officers and bystanders, said police Maj. Falah al-Mhaamadawi.
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