- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

BAGHDAD — Simultaneous terrorist attacks killed at least 143 Muslim pilgrims and wounded hundreds yesterday as they marked a sacred Shi’ite religious holiday for the first time in decades. Unofficial death tolls ranged at more than 200.

U.S. officials blamed the mayhem, described as Iraq’s bloodiest day since the end of the war, on an operative of terror network al Qaeda who recently drafted a letter proposing to try to start a civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

Explosions in the holy city of Karbala, about 75 miles south of the capital, Baghdad, tore through a procession of more than 1 million at the close of the 10-day festival of Ashura, the most holy day on the Shi’ite calendar. It commemorates the 7th-century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

Moments later in Baghdad, multiple suicide bombers attacked pilgrims commemorating the holiday at the city’s main Shi’ite mosque.

Iraqi officials declared a three-day period of mourning and suggested that a ceremony today to sign an interim constitution would be delayed.

In both cities, panicked pilgrims fled the explosions in terror, sometimes running head-on into another blast.

A woman, her face bloodied beneath a black veil, held her husband as a child lay nearby.

A giant green flag carried in celebration became a makeshift stretcher stained with the blood and charred skin of a victim being pulled to safety.

The terror quickly turned to rage, with crowds at Baghdad’s Kazimiya mosque attacking American soldiers who arrived shortly after the blasts, leaving two with broken bones.

Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Hussein al-Sistani, Iraq’s most powerful Shi’ite cleric, condemned the attacks in a message on his Web site but also criticized coalition forces for being slow in controlling the country’s borders against infiltrators and equipping Iraqi security forces.

Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the chief suspect in the attacks was Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian with links to al Qaeda.

Coalition officials recently released a captured letter, thought to have been written by the suspect, claiming responsibility for past suicide bombings and proposing a wave of attacks on Shi’ites to destabilize Iraq.

“The terrorists want sectarian violence because they believe that is the only way they can stop Iraq’s march toward the democracy that the terrorists fear,” said L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. administrator in Iraq. “They will lose because the Iraqi people want and will have democracy, freedom and a sovereign Iraqi government.”

Gen. Kimmitt said three suicide bombs had exploded at the Kazimiya mosque and that a fourth attacker had been detained when his bomb failed to go off.

Others at the scene of the Baghdad blast reported seeing incoming mortar fire as crowds marched to commemorate the climax of the 10-day battle in which Imam Hussein, later raised to sainthood, was killed nearly 1,400 years ago.

The U.S. military said 58 persons died in the Baghdad blasts and 85 perished in at least six explosions in Karbala, which began with a bombing that sent a huge fireball skyward. Iraqi government and hospital sources put the toll substantially higher, with one policeman telling the Associated Press that 165 had died in Karbala.

The news agency said police in the southern city of Basra arrested four would-be suicide bombers, including two women wearing explosives-laden belts, and that a bomb had been defused Monday night in the holy city of Najaf.

An attack during the Shi’ite festival in the Pakistani city of Quetta yesterday killed at least 42 persons and injured at least 150, AP said.

In Iraq, authorities had anticipated violence at the close of the Ashura festival, celebrated for the first time after a decades-long ban by Saddam Hussein, whose regime was dominated by rival Sunni Muslims.

“We expected something like this would happen,” said Dr. Saffa al-Husseini, head of the al-Hakim Hospital about 10 miles from the site of the Baghdad explosion.

Dr. al-Husseini ordered the entire hospital staff to report to work at the 200-bed facility yesterday, a national holiday, and by early afternoon, 73 victims had been admitted.

In the hours after the 10 a.m. blasts, ambulances pushed through crowds of relatives who gathered outside seeking loved ones who were missing. Neighbors came to donate blood.

By late afternoon, heavily sedated patients lay quietly, with intravenous drips and fresh bandages. Surgeons had patched up shrapnel wounds and set broken bones.

A child, perhaps 4 years old, with burns covering the face, abdomen and legs, stared blankly at visitors.

“These burns are not that bad, but they can be serious if they are not treated,” said Dr. al-Husseini, adding that the boy would recover.

The child could not speak. No one knew his name and his family had not been found.

A member of the hospital staff entered the ward with a handful of papers bearing the child’s picture. These had been produced quickly with a digital camera, computer and ink jet printer to be distributed at three neighborhood hospitals in hopes of finding relatives.

Because the al-Hakim hospital was furthest from the site, the least seriously wounded had been brought there. Of the 73 patients admitted, two died.

Outside, police set up roadblocks to keep angry crowds away.

“I can’t describe the feeling in my heart. These people are our brothers, children. We all worship the same God,” said one man from the neighborhood, who gave his name only as Ali.

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