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Shiite Pilgrims Attacked In Iraq

A suicide car bomb tore through buses carrying Iranian pilgrims Thursday near a Shiite shrine in the holy Iraqi city of Kufa, killing at least 10 people and wounding 40.

The attack occurred about 7:15 a.m. near the Maitham al-Tamar shrine and just down the street from the revered Kufa mosque in the southern city. Iraq's council of ministers issued a statement giving the casualty toll and said most of the victims were Iranian pilgrims.

Tehran condemned the attack and called on the Iraqi government to bring those responsible to justice. It also blamed U.S.-led forces for failing to provide security.

Police at the scene said the suicide attacker was driving a minivan behind two buses and detonated his explosives as the pilgrims were getting off. The buses were destroyed and a mosaic-lined wall of the shrine was damaged.

Nobody claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion fell on Sunni extremists amid rising sectarian tensions in the country.

"The purpose is clear - to stop pilgrimage. I suspect that the criminal Baathists are behind this act," the governor of nearby Najaf, Asaad Abu Kallal, said, referring to members of Saddam Hussein's ousted party.

Radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr also denounced the bombing. "It was meant to shake the stability in Najaf," said his aide, Sahib al-Amiri.

Kufa and its twin city Najaf, 100 miles south of Baghdad, are in a relatively peaceful area.

Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, called the bombing "barbaric terrorist act" and singled the Americans out for blame.

"The wrong approach of occupying Americans and their failure to be accountable in Iraq has spread violence and terrorism in this country. Terrorists, relying on America's wrong approach, continue their crimes," state-run television quoted Asefi as saying.

In other recent developments:

  • The wife of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the al Qaeda in Iraq terror group leader killed by a U.S. air strike, says she feared for her husband's life and warned him to leave Iraq at least temporarily, but he refused. In a statement posted on the Internet, the terror chief's widow says her warning was met with an angry look as al-Zarqawi responded: "Me? I can't betray my religion and get out of Iraq.'"
  • The House Committee on Government Reform has subpoenaed the Pentagon for records on a whistleblower in the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Army Specialist Samuel Provance – one of five whistleblowers who testified on Capitol Hill in February - says his rank was reduced for disobeying orders not to speak about the abuse. The chairman of the House committee says the subpoena was needed because the Pentagon "won't even return a call."
  • A former Blackwater USA employee was charged with trying to extort her former employer by threatening to leak to the media information about four contractors killed in Fallujah in May 2004. Laura Holdren-Nowacki, 35, of Moyock, N.J., denies any extortion attempt but plans to talk to reporters following her court hearing on Friday. "I've got a lot to say," said Nowacki, "and some of it will be of interest to the family members of the contractors who died."

    The Blackwater contractors' bodies were mutilated and the charred remains were strung up on a bridge. The men's families have sued Blackwater, alleging that the contractors weren't properly equipped or trained for their mission.

  • A suicide car bomb struck a joint Iraqi-U.S. checkpoint near Ana town, about 150 miles northwest of Baghdad, wounding two Iraqi solders.
  • A former judge during Saddam's regime was killed and his son was wounded in a drive-by shooting in western Baghdad.
  • Gunmen killed a real estate broker at his office in Mosul. A roadside bomb also struck a police patrol in the northern city, wounding one of the policemen.
  • Police found the bodies of six people who had been handcuffed and shot in the head in three different locations in Baghdad.
  • A Raleigh, N.C., radio talk show host plans to record and release "Hadji Girl," a song written by a Marine corporal which has been denounced by the Council on American Relations. A spokesman for "The Mike Church Show" says the song's author, Corporal Joshua Belile, will not sing in the recording but he could collect royalties.

    "Hadji Girl" tells the story of a Marine who falls in love with an Iraqi woman and is then attacked by members of her family. The Marine, in turn, kills the family members. Belile has said the song was a joke; Marine Corps officials concluded that he did not violate military law.

  • Thursday's car bombing came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki returned to Iraq after a regional tour to drum up support for his 24-point national reconciliation plan.

    The Shiite leader on Wednesday demanded an independent inquiry of the rape-slaying of an Iraqi girl and the killing of her family, as well as a review of the immunity rules protecting U.S. forces from Iraqi prosecution.

    Al-Maliki, whose brief tenure has been marked by several high-profile allegations of abuse by U.S. forces, called for an Iraqi investigation - or at least a joint inquiry - into the March 12 rape-murder of Abeer Qassim Hamza, and the killing of her mother, father and sister at their home in Mahmoudiya, south of Baghdad.

    "We believe that the immunity given to members of coalition forces encouraged them to commit such crimes in cold blood (and) that makes it necessary to review it," al-Maliki told reporters in Kuwait, calling for the policies to be reviewed.

    Former Army Pfc. Steve D. Green was charged Monday in federal court in Charlotte, N.C., with rape and four counts of murder. He was held without bond. At least four other U.S. soldiers still in Iraq are under investigation in the attack.

    In Baghdad, an American military spokesman stressed that the U.S. command was taking the allegations seriously and would discuss al-Maliki's demands.

    The attack in Kufa also occurred a day after the U.S. military predicted an increase in vehicle bombings now that Abu Hamza al-Muhajer, also known as Abu Ayyub al-Masri, has succeeded the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as head of al-Qaida in Iraq. Al-Masri is an explosives expert specializing in such attacks, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said.

    The U.S. military reported 74 car bombs in the four weeks ending June 9, two days after al-Zarqawi was killed, compared with 125 in the four weeks since that date.

    AP Television News footage showed the charred hulks of the buses while a bulldozer cleared the blackened mass of metal that apparently was the minivan used in the attack.

    On April 6, a car bomb exploded in Najaf, killing at least 10 people some 300 yards from the Imam Ali shrine on a street that leads to the city's massive cemetery - used by Shiites from throughout the country who come to the city to bury their dead.

    Pilgrims traveling to holy sites in the area also have been targeted. Other past attacks included a mortar barrage that hit the Kufa mosque in August 2004, killing 27 people and wounding 63, and a car bomb in Najaf in August 2003 that killed more than 85 people, including Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.

    Attacks on houses of worship have stoked tensions between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, especially after the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, an act that triggered reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques and clerics.

    The Kufa mosque holds the shrine of Muslim Bin Aqeel, a follower of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It also was the site of fierce clashes between al-Sadr's followers and U.S. troops in 2004.

    Millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims from Iran and elsewhere take dangerous bus journeys through Iraq to travel to the shrines in the area. Officials have begun expanding and modernizing the now-shuttered Imam Ali Airport in Najaf in an attempt to provide safer transportation.