- The Washington Times - Friday, December 25, 2009

BAGHDAD | Bombs hit Shi’ite pilgrims in Baghdad and a central Iraqi city Thursday, killing at least 27 people and wounding scores more in the latest attack in the lead-up to Ashura, the Muslim sect’s most solemn annual rite.

The blasts raised fears of more bloodshed as hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites head to the holy city of Karbala in central Iraq for ceremonies Sunday to mark the climax of the religious observance.

Ashura’s 10 days of mourning are in remembrance of the killing in Karbala of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Hussein, in an A.D. 680 battle that sealed the split between Shi’ites and Sunnis.

Authorities said twin bombs killed at least 13 people and injured 74 others in the central Iraqi town of Hillah, the capital of Babil province, which is located about 60 miles south of Baghdad. The explosions hit a busy bus terminal where many Shi’ite pilgrims had gathered.

Abandoned shoes lay in puddles of blood as shell-shocked survivors sat in front of damaged storefronts.

“As people gathered here, a powerful blast took place,” said witness Ali Hussein. “A bomb exploded there and a car bomb exploded here.”

Hours later, a bomb targeting a funeral in Baghdad killed nine and wounded 33 in a predominantly Shi’ite neighborhood, police and hospital officials said. The officials spoke anonymously because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

It was unclear whether the attackers thought they were targeting an Ashura procession, in which devout Shi’ites beat themselves with swords and other instruments to show their devotion and mourning for Imam Hussein.

Also in Baghdad, another bomb killed five Shi’ite pilgrims and wounded 18 others on their way to Karbala, police and hospital officials said.

Although Ashura is essentially an expression of religious grief, it has also become a demonstration of power by Iraq’s majority Shi’ites.

Observance of the holy day was forbidden by former dictator Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime. After he was ousted and a Shi’ite-led government came to power, pilgrims turned out en masse to mark the occasion, defying the threat of insurgent attacks.

People from around southern Iraq, which is overwhelmingly Shi’ite, make up the bulk of pilgrims traveling to Karbala. In Karbala itself, police said another explosion injured eight pilgrims about a mile from the al-Hussein holy shrine.

Thursday’s explosions were not as deadly as in previous years. But clerics from both sides of the divide denounced the insurgents’ attempts to re-ignite the sectarian hatred that shook the country two years ago.

“We expect al Qaeda will exploit the religious occasion of Ashura and try to ignite the sectarian tensions,” said Sheik Salah al-Obaidi, spokesman of the conservative Shi’ite Sadr movement, a political party led by an anti-American cleric. He said more bombings were expected.

Karbala police spokesman Maj. Alaa Abbas said 25,000 additional security forces had been sent to the city, along with specialized vehicles and police dogs to detect explosives.

Helicopters are also keeping watch from the skies.

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