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Shiite militias clash in Iraq, killing over 50

Fighting comes amid a massive pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala.

August 29, 2007|Saad Fakhrildeen and Carol J. Williams | Special to The Times

NAJAF, IRAQ — Shiite militias attacked each other in Karbala on Tuesday, killing more than 50 people in gunfights, setting fire to three hotels and forcing authorities to scuttle a religious festival by ordering a million celebrants to leave the holy city where they had gathered.

More than 200 people were injured in the panic that ensued when Mahdi Army members loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr battled the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.

The death toll was expected to climb, with witnesses reporting dozens of bodies still slumped on the streets surrounding the Imam Hussein shrine and amid the smoldering rubble of the three nearby buildings set ablaze during the rampage.

The two Shiite militias have been waging an increasingly deadly battle for control of southern Iraq's most important cities and its abundant oil resources. The southern city of Basra, the wealthiest oil venue in Iraq, is about to be handed over to Iraqi forces by British troops, and the impending move has accelerated clashes between the Mahdi and Badr militias as they jockey for power in the region in the absence of any functional central government.

The latest confrontation came in the midst of the annual Shiite Muslim pilgrimage to Karbala that was to have culminated in prayers and festivities today in commemoration of the birth of Mohammed Mahdi, one of Shiite Islam's 12 revered imams. The curfews and evacuation order scuttled the highlight of the ritual in honor of the 9th century prophet who disappeared and, according to Shiite belief, will return one day to usher in an era of peace.

Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the majority Shiite population oppressed by his Sunni-dominated government has had new freedom to participate in pilgrimages and other religious activities. But some of the mass activities have been marred by attacks by the rival Sunni Muslim community. In this case, the fighting is between rival Shiite groups that have been battling for political supremacy as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government founders amid accusations of incompetence and sectarianism.

Sadr's political movement has been boycotting the government, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council's top figure in the national leadership, Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, has been seen as a potential successor to Maliki should he resign or should the parliament oust him.

Witnesses reported that the fighting this week began with Mahdi militiamen hurling rocks, bricks and knives at local police and quickly escalated into an exchange of rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 fire.

Iraqi authorities ordered a curfew for the besieged city 50 miles south of Baghdad as well as for Najaf and Hillah, other Badr strongholds in the region, and sent buses to begin evacuating pilgrims.

"I am stuck in Karbala near the governorate building where I'm hearing a heavy exchange of gunfire," a pilgrim from Najaf, who did not want to be identified, said by cellphone from where he was taking cover about 200 yards from the Imam Hussein shrine. He reported that gunmen set fire to the nearby hotels after militiamen holed up inside fired on local police and Iraqi army troops. Pilgrims had also taken refuge in the buildings to escape stray gunfire.

As the violence escalated despite the Iraqi government's deployment of 15,000 security troops, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed the U.S. mission to bring peace to Iraq a failure that has produced a power vacuum. He observed that Iran and other countries in the region were "prepared to fill that void." It was not immediately clear whether he was speaking in reaction to the Karbala situation or making a general condemnation of the U.S. presence in Iraq.

"The political power of the occupiers has been destroyed," Ahmadinejad told reporters at a news conference in Tehran. "Rapidly and very soon we will witness a great void in the region, and we and our friends, along with Saudi Arabia and the nation of Iraq, are prepared to fill that void."

The Pentagon has sent 28,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq over the last six months, but civilian deaths from sectarian fighting, assassinations and militia power struggles have continued. The violence has thwarted U.S. aims of turning over responsibility for security to the Iraqi government, whose police and army ranks are often overwhelmed, or infiltrated, by more powerful and better armed militias.

The violence convulsing Karbala had killed 51 and injured 206 by nightfall, said an Interior Ministry official here who asked not to be named. It was unclear whether that figure included 11 people killed over the previous two days as pilgrims made their way to Karbala along roads teeming with snipers. Four pilgrims died in the first gun battle near the shrine late Monday.

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