Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Shock Turns to Anger in Karbala
Just after 10 am on March 2, worshippers in Karbala were beginning to gather at the shrine of the Imam Hussein to perform the ziyara, the visitation of the tomb of the martyred grandson of the Prophet that marks the climax of the Shia festival of Ashura.
Safa Rasan, 30, who worked as a driver bringing Iranian pilgrims from the border, and his friend Hani Kadhem were on their way to the office of their marja - the scholar that pious Shia take as a religious guide - when they heard the first explosion.
Even as the friends argued over what to do, another blast erupted nearby.
"We were thrown to the ground by the strength of the blast. Glass broke and shards were flying," Rasan said.
They picked themselves up and joined thousands of other pilgrims running down the street. But ahead they saw another man - a bomber - walk into a crowd of worshippers and blow himself up.
"We were horrified - we saw his head fly through the air," Kadhem said.
Shortly afterward, as they left the city, the two men saw an ambulance driven by policemen run a red Opel estate car off the road and pull the driver, whom they presume was a suspected bomber, out onto the street.
Ten minutes after the last blast subsided, bodies lay under plastic tarpaulins on the street leading towards the shrine of Hussein's half-brother Abbas.
Surrounding them were the shattered remains of tables laid out to provide free food to pilgrims.
Some bystanders combed through piles of trash by the roadside, looking for new bombs.
Others pounded with rocks to open locked metal barriers across the city's alleyways and allow ambulances access to the wounded.
Ambulances shuttled back and forth, bringing out the wounded first, and then the dead. One vehicle was spotted making at least ten trips into the city centre.
An elderly Iranian woman, an invalid, was pushed away in her wheelchair with blood streaming from her hands and legs.
Owners of private cars offered to take the wounded for treatment, while police brought winches to pull away unoccupied vehicles, for fear that they also contained explosives.
In the square between the al-Hussein and al-Abbas shrines, loudspeakers appealed for blood donations for the injured.
The crowds began to gather again.
Demonstrators called for unity between Muslims, vowing that the bombing would not turn Sunni and Shia against each other.
But shock quickly turned to anger.
A crowd gathered outside the doors of the Mudeif al-Abbas hotel, claiming that a suspect in the bombing had fled inside.
At least one Iranian pilgrim and one foreign journalist were later reported to have been attacked.
The main focus on the crowd's fury, however, fell on the occupying Coalition forces.
"This is on the Americans' heads," shouted one milita-man brandishing a Kalashnikov, as he stood over two bodies draped in plastic tarpaulins.
"We are under their protection," shouted hotelier Abdul Aziz Midhat. "If they cannot protect us, let us get them out [of Iraq]." In his basement, dozens of Iranian pilgrims huddled together for protection from further blasts.
More than an hour after the blasts, three Humvees could be seen on the outskirts of town, racing towards the shrines in the centre.
Shortly afterward, Arab television showed footage of what appeared to be the same vehicles being pelted with stones.
Reporting by Dhiya Rasan, Abdel-Amir Aljubury, Mohammed Fawzi, Hisham Karem Alwan, and Wisam al-Jaf.
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