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Bomb Attacks Target Shia Festival

Death toll continues to rise following coordinated attacks on crowds at Shia shrines.
By Alison Freebairn

Over 140 people were reported dead and hundreds of others injured early on March 2 in a series of bomb attacks in the Iraqi cities of Karbala and Baghdad.


The attacks took place on one of the holiest days in the majority Shia community’s calendar, Ashura, which was being openly observed by Iraqis for the first time in decades. The festival had been banned by Saddam Hussein’s regime because of fears that it could become a focus for Shia dissidents.


Unconfirmed reports suggest that as many as 85 people died in Karbala, some 80 kilometres south of Baghdad, while 58 were reported dead in several blasts in the capital. However, hospital sources told the media that the death toll was almost certain to rise.


More than a million people are believed to have flocked to Karbala to visit two shrines to commemorate the death in 680 of Imam Hussein, a key figure in Shia Islam.


The first of six explosions were heard at around 10 am local time, sparking a panicked stampede away from the sites.


Shia Muslims had also gathered to pay their respects at Baghdad’s Kadhimiya shrine when four or more explosions rocked the site, also at around 10 am.


Eyewitnesses reported torn limbs and bloody body parts lying in the shrine’s courtyard, while the streets outside were littered with the shoes of thousands of worshippers who had crammed inside to pray.


Police officers and armed men in plain clothes sealed off the devastated shrines in both cities and struggled to keep panicking crowds under control.


It is not yet clear how the apparently well-coordinated attacks were carried out, although eyewitnesses claimed suicide bombers were responsible.


Officials said that security had been very high at both sites following fears that the event could be targeted by insurgents.


These attacks could inflame simmering tensions between the majority Shia population and their Sunni neighbours, analysts warn. Attacks on mosques or shrines are a sure-fire way to outrage communities and bring people out onto the streets in protest.


While it is too early to say with certainty who might be responsible, analysts are already talking about Sunni militants – of either Iraqi or foreign origin – who would have a motive to foment sectarian hatred as a way of destabilising the United States-led occupation. Suggestions that the attack was carried out by suicide bombers were cited by those who blamed external forces such as al-Qaeda.


There is also concern that these latest attacks could increase anti-American sentiment. After the bombings, a spokesman for leading Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani criticised US forces for ignoring what he said were repeated requests to increase security around the shrines.


Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in London.


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