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Explosions in 2 Iraqi Cities Kill 52 People

Multiple explosions in Karbala and Baghdad leave dozens injured during a holiday that few could celebrate under Hussein.

March 02, 2004|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

KARBALA, Iraq — Multiple explosions killed at least 52 people, injured dozens and sent worshipers scrambling for cover this morning here and in Baghdad in an apparently coordinated attack during the Shiite Muslim feast of Ashura.

About 10 a.m., seven or eight blasts went off in Karbala near twin gold-domed mosques. Al Arabiya television said mortars appeared to have been used. At the same time, at least three explosions hit near a mosque in Baghdad's Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiya, causing dozens of casualties including at least 37 deaths. Another explosion was reported in the neighborhood of Saidiya.

Jawad Khalisi, imam of the mosque in Kadhimiya, said one explosion appeared to be inside the mosque and the others outside the building.

Fears about security were already strong Monday as hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslim pilgrims -- including throngs of Iranians -- gathered in a fervent demonstration of faith that highlighted the surge in religious zeal in Iraq since the ouster of Saddam Hussein's secular regime.

Officials of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority had voiced concerns about a potentially devastating attack at a time when a terror network led by Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian affiliated with Al Qaeda, is said to be targeting Shiites in an apparent bid to spark a civil war.

In Baghdad, streets were nearly empty and security was tight, both because of the holiday and fears of violence.

The culmination of the feast of Ashura drew worshipers from all walks of life to the streets adjacent to the mosques dedicated to two imams, Hussein and Abbas, who are said to have been killed in battle here more than 1,000 years ago.

Police put the crowd number at 1 million, but that seemed more guesswork than actual estimate.

Before today's violence, a sense of religious ecstasy reigned.

Groups of men flogged themselves with metal chains. Others dressed in white robes and prepared to beat their heads with sharp daggers. Still others pounded their chests or heads with their hands as they chanted tributes to Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad who was recalled as a revolutionary reformer and martyr.

Pilgrims young and old, men and women, marched in formation with candles and kerosene lamps. Groups of university students from throughout Iraq hoisted spiritual banners and bounded up and down while repeating rhythmic slogans. Hundreds of volunteers sifted through the crowd spraying the faithful with fine mists of fragrant water. Others handed out free helpings of sugared tea, dates and other food. Many participants simply sat on carpets along the curbs and sidewalks and read the Koran, seemingly oblivious to the commotion.

"This is a great day for all of our Shiite brothers," said Ali Abdul-Nabi, a 40-year-old laborer from Baghdad who beamed as he sat with others in the broad, palm-fringed park separating the two huge mosques, their minarets bathed in red light and dazzling. "Under Saddam Hussein, we could never celebrate this. We are thankful to the Americans for helping us get rid of the dictator."

Hussein's security forces long discouraged mass displays of religious faith, at times blocking access for worshipers and even detaining those deemed too demonstrative.

The Baathist regime was especially brutal in repressing the nation's Shiite majority.

Tight controls on religious visitors from neighboring Iran were also a hallmark of Hussein's government, which fought a prolonged war against the Islamic Republic in the 1980s. In the new Iraq, however, the floodgates of religion appear wide open.

Busloads of pilgrims from Iran were among those descending on Karbala. Iranians have flocked en masse to Shiite shrines in Iraq since Hussein was deposed, despite the dangers of traveling through battle zones.

"For so long, we could not come -- and now I am here," said a joyous Hujat Allah, a 35-year-old Iranian teacher who was seated in the park. "I never dreamed I would be able to come to Karbala for Ashura. This is a wonderful moment."

Iranian television broadcast live, and an aid station was set up especially for Iranians in need of attention. It was at times difficult to find anyone who spoke Arabic.

Earlier, pilgrims on foot lined the roads to Karbala, bearing flags of green, red and black. Iraqi police and various Shiite militias manned checkpoints at entry points to town. No cars were allowed in the city center, and everyone heading for the mosques was subject to a body search.

Karbala has not been immune to turmoil. Four coordinated suicide car attacks Dec. 27 killed at least 19 people, including six soldiers from Bulgaria and Thailand who were part of the multinational force patrolling the area. *

Times staff writer Sebastian Rotella, researcher Salar Jaff and special correspondent Suhail Ahmed in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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