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Death Toll in Twin Strikes on Iraqi Shiites Rises to 143

March 03, 2004|Sebastian Rotella and Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — In the worst day of bloodshed in Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein, the death toll rose to at least 143 Tuesday from synchronized suicide bombings of Shiite Muslim targets that seemed designed to inflict maximum casualties and inflame sectarian tensions.

The explosions here and in the holy city of Karbala tore into throngs of Shiite pilgrims, spattering the walls of venerated shrines with blood and body parts. The attacks took place on the peak day of the Ashura feast, the holiest Shiite holiday period. More than 430 people were wounded, and the number of dead from bombs packed with ball bearings to wreak destruction at close range seemed likely to increase.

The choreographed attacks were blamed by Iraqi and U.S. officials on Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian fugitive affiliated with Al Qaeda. But the officials offered little proof that the alleged terrorist, who they believe is targeting Shiites in an effort to foment civil strife, was behind the bombings.

Potential suspects also include other Islamic extremists and Iraqi Sunni Muslims who prospered during the Hussein regime and are fearful of losing privilege.

The magnitude and savagery of the attacks dealt a devastating psychological blow to the Shiite community, which represents 60% of Iraq's population and has asserted new clout after decades of repression.

The apparent ease of the attacks underscored Iraq's vulnerability as the U.S. military relinquishes security duties to overmatched Iraqi police.

"How can you combat this?" said police Capt. Sabah Mohammed, his AK-47 at the ready as frightened pilgrims fled through the narrow streets of Karbala after the blasts. "How can you combat one person who wants to blow himself up among thousands of people?"

Last month, suicide bombers killed more than 100 people in attacks on Kurdish political party offices in the northern city of Irbil. Kurds also were repressed under Hussein and aspire to greater autonomy, so attacking them could be seen as part of a strategy to destabilize Iraq.

In Baghdad on Tuesday, three suicide bombers struck about 10 a.m. after blending in with worshipers packed into a gold-domed shrine in the Kadhimiya neighborhood. The men set off explosives-laden vests that shredded the crowd with shrapnel, blew a massive wooden door off its hinges and littered a courtyard with mangled corpses and bloodied shoes that the faithful had stored on shelves at the entrance of the prayer area.

"The keepers of the shoes were killed," said Hussein Hamid, a leader of a Shiite militia, as black-garbed gunmen sorrowfully thumped their heads and chests. "We found children decapitated, a woman with no face. Look, those are people on the ground. What's left of them."

Hamid displayed a fragment of a grenade he found amid the devastation, suggesting that the bombers either had grenades strapped to their vests or hurled some before blowing themselves up, authorities said.

Iraqi police captured a fourth bomber whose vest failed to explode. The man threw grenades at panicked pilgrims before he was subdued, said an Iraqi police commander who identified himself as Ali. Authorities disclosed no information about the suspect.

The Baghdad explosions killed 58 and wounded 200, officials said.

About the same time, a second attack team struck in the historic center of Karbala, where hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims had gathered to commemorate the martyrdom of the revered 7th century Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson.

U.S. authorities described a combination of methods: suicide bombing, a remote-controlled explosive and mortars fired from the outskirts of the city.

A U.S. Army spokesman said one suicide bomber was involved, but Iraqi police and eyewitnesses said suicide bombers caused most of the seven or eight blasts. Iraqi police downplayed the reports of mortar strikes.

The site of the first blast in Karbala was just outside a security cordon at the shrine of Imam Hussein. A bearded bomber dressed in a black outfit similar to that of the pilgrims waded into a group of chanting men, police officer Khalid Ali said.

The explosion killed and maimed more than a dozen worshipers. Streets became gantlets as stampeding crowds ran headlong into new explosions.

Police recovered the head of the bomber for forensic analysis, Ali said. Officers also rounded up six suspected accomplices. There were unconfirmed reports that mobs lynched three other suspects, a U.S. official said. The Karbala attacks killed at least 85 and wounded 233.

Iraqi leaders and U.S. officials immediately branded alleged Al Qaeda associate Zarqawi as the mastermind of Tuesday's carnage. The coordinated strikes were consistent with his methods, officials said.

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