Shia Pilgrim Blasts Provoke Iraqi Sectarian Fears

Bloodshed highlights concerns about Shia-Sunni violence in the run-up to elections.

Shia Pilgrim Blasts Provoke Iraqi Sectarian Fears

Bloodshed highlights concerns about Shia-Sunni violence in the run-up to elections.

A string of deadly bombings has marred an annual Shia pilgrimage and brought a grim reminder of Iraq's burning sectarian disputes ahead of March elections.

At least 20 people were killed and more than 110 wounded by an explosion as they entered the holy city of Karbala on February 3, a security official told IWPR. Earlier in the day, two roadside bombs in Baghdad killed at least one and injured dozens. Local media have reported two additional deaths from a bomb in the city of Hilla, south of Baghdad.

The attacks came two days after a female suicide bomber disguised as a Shia pilgrim struck a procession in a Sunni suburb of north Baghdad, killing at least 38 people and wounding 89 others, according to the ministry of health.

A series of bombings have killed hundreds in recent months and cast increased doubt on Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's campaign promises of improved security.

Iraq is scheduled to hold a nationwide parliamentary election on March 7.

"Although the attacks targeted Shia pilgrims in particular, and Iraqis in general, they are a clear message to Maliki that he cannot protect his people," said lawmaker Abdul Hadi al-Hasani, a member of Maliki’s State of Law Alliance.

"This was a desperate attempt to intensify the problems that exist between the religious sects and influence voters," Hasani added.

Hundreds of thousands of Shia faithful are walking this week to Iraq's holy city of Karbala to honour the Abraeein, the end of 40 days of mourning following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad who died in an epic battle in the seventh century.

The pilgrimage, which was banned by Saddam Hussein, has been subjected to numerous extremist attacks since its revival. Baghdad officials had pledged to increase security for this year's event.

"Terrorists never hesitate to attacks Shia anytime or anywhere, especially on holy days. Now the upcoming election is another encouraging factor for them to commit attacks to stoke sectarian tension," said Ammar Toama, a Shia lawmaker and member of the parliamentary security committee.

“Terrorists and Baathists know that those who revere Imam Hussein will never accept to have the Baath party back, so they attack us to revenge them,” he added.

The woman who executed the February 1 bombing wore a belt loaded with explosives underneath a traditional abaya, a head-to-toe black robe, worn by Shia women on the annual trek to Karbala. She was lined up with other women being searched by female security guards at a checkpoint inside a rest tent when the bomb was detonated, according to witnesses and security sources.

The tent had been set up to provide refreshments to weary travelers by Sunni residents of the Bob al-Sham area on the northern outskirts of Baghdad.

"The bomb was a huge explosion. It knocked us all down and when we got up there were men, women and children lying dead all around us," said Saif Fakher, a 20-year-old university art student, as he sat beside his wounded brother in a central Baghdad hospital.

"What sin caused these innocent people to be killed? Is it because they are Iraqis? Or because they are Shia? What have the victims done to the bombers to be treated in this brutal way?" he added.

Most of the victims were pilgrims heading to Karbala from Diyala. Several of those in the hospital told IWPR they blamed the attack on al-Qaeda and the Takfereen, Sunni insurgents who consider Shia to be infidels. No group has taken responsibility for the bombing.

Lying on a nearby hospital bed, 22-year-old Diyala pilgrim Wisam Mohammed Katea moaned in pain and called for help.

"The people who did this are malicious cowards," Katea said with difficulty. "They hate peace, and they do not hope for good things to come for Iraq."

Um Mustafa, 60, waited outside the room where her son was undergoing surgery for the injuries he sustained in the attack.

“How long we will wait for death, not knowing when and where it will come? Death is everywhere," she said. "What is the government waiting for? Why it doesn't it just get rid of those terrorists? The government must act."

According to political analyst Abdullah Jafar, Iraq's recent instability is likely undermine the electoral prospects of Maliki’s Shia-led nationalist bloc, which claims to prioritise security.

"If you take a broad look at the current situation of security, politics and society, all the indications are that Iraq will be led by Islamic sectarian parties," Jafar said.

Hameed Majeed Musa, a legislator from the Iraqi Communist Party, agreed. "[Maliki's] party is in power now, so people will blame him for the poor security performance,” he said.

As election politics play out in the aftermath of the attack, victims such as Fakher are in defiant mood.

"If the extremists think that they will stop us in this way, they are wrong. Life will go on, and our families and our pilgrimage will never stop," he told IWPR.

"The extremists think that when they attack such big Shia gatherings on holy occasions there will be reactions that will return the country to sectarian strife, but it will not happen," Toama said. "Iraqis realise from their past experience that sectarian war will not be in anyone’s interests.”

Ali Kareem is an IWPR-trained journalist in Baghdad. Abeer Mohammed is IWPR Iraq’s senior local editor.

Iraqi Kurdistan, Iraq
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