- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

KARBALA, Iraq — Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims descended yesterday on the holy city of Karbala, paying tribute to one of their most-revered saints in defiance of threats of violence by the country’s Sunni-dominated insurgency.

The gathering took place as suicide bombings elsewhere took 21 lives.

Officials in Baghdad, meanwhile, announced that one of Saddam Hussein’s nephews was sentenced to life in prison for funding the violent insurgency, and would stand trial on other charges.

More violence erupted farther south, where British troops exchanged gunfire with demonstrators in Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city. The clash broke out after Iraqi police arrested two Britons for purportedly killing one policeman and wounding a second.

Authorities in Karbala said they had uncovered a cache of explosives and arrested four insurgents for planning to attack the pilgrims attending festivities marking the birthday of the 12th Shi’ite imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi.

Similar gatherings in Karbala and other Shi’ite holy cities have ended in bloodshed. In December, more than 50 pilgrims were killed in a series of bombings in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, and in March 2004, at least 181 persons died in coordinated bombings of Shi’ite pilgrims in Karbala and Baghdad. Both attacks were blamed on Sunni extremists.

Just days before this celebration, al Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab Zarqawi, in a recorded message, declared an “all-out war” on Shi’ites and others deemed American collaborators.

But Iraqi Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi said yesterday such threats would only “strengthen the defiance” of Iraqis.

Mr. Abdul-Mahdi said the Shi’ite pilgrims heading to Karbala were the “biggest [example of] defiance in the face of threats by al-Zarqawi.”

A wave of insurgent violence has killed at least 250 persons and wounded hundreds nationwide since Wednesday, when 14 suicide bombs exploded in Baghdad in the bloodiest day in the capital since the war began.

On Sunday night, a suicide car bomber struck a joint American-Iraqi patrol near Taji, 12 miles north of Baghdad, detonating his vehicle and killing 14 Iraqi soldiers, police 1st Lt. Hameed al-Magdami said.

In Mahmoudiya, another suicide bomber blew himself up near an Iraqi police commando patrol yesterday, killing five policemen and two civilians and wounding another 13 officers and bystanders, said police Maj. Falah al-Mhaamadawi. Mahmoudiya is about 20 miles south of Baghdad.

Karbala police Brig. Gen. Mohammed al-Hasnawi said that the city had been closed off to all vehicles since Friday, and that about 6,000 police and Iraqi army troops were deployed throughout the city.

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