- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2006

BAGHDAD — A bomber blew himself up yesterday among pilgrims outside Iraq’s holiest Shi’ite shrine in Najaf, killing 35 persons and wounding 122.

At least 37 others were killed or found dead elsewhere in Iraq yesterday, police said. They included five civilians who died when a mortar shell struck a cafe in a Shi’ite Muslim area of north Baghdad.

The suicide bomber struck as he was being patted down by a security guard in front of the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf, which contains the tomb of the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law, Ali, and is one of the most sacred shrines for Shi’ites.

The casualty totals were reported in an Iraqi army statement.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, denounced the bombing as a “barbaric massacre” conducted by Sunni extremists and Saddam Hussein loyalists “seeking to inflame sectarian” passions.

A Sunni extremist group — Jamaat Jund al-Sahaba or Soldiers of the Prophet’s Companions — took responsibility for the blast, warning Shi’ites in an Internet posting that “our swords are capable of reaching deep in your regions.”

“So stop killing unarmed Sunnis and stop supporting the crusaders” or the Americans, the group said. “Otherwise, wait for such operations that will shake your regions like an earthquake.”

The blast shattered souvenir stalls across from the shrine, littering the narrow streets with broken perfume bottles, sandals, prayer beads and pools of blood. Volunteers picked up the human remains.

“Before I reached the checkpoint, only a few feet from the shrine, I heard a huge explosion,” said 51-year-old Shakir Obeid Hassan. “Something hit me on the head, and I fell. I couldn’t hear for a while, but I saw bodies and human flesh everywhere.”

An Iranian woman was among the dead and at least nine Iranians, including two women, were wounded, Iranian state television reported.

It was the deadliest attack since July 18, when more than 50 people were killed by a suicide bombing in Najaf’s twin city of Kufa, about 100 miles south of Baghdad.

Najaf was the scene of heavy fighting in 2004 between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, until the Shi’ite clerical hierarchy persuaded Sheik al-Sadr to give up. Since then, the city has been tightly controlled by police and Shi’ite guards, including former militiamen.

In the days before the attack, a letter purportedly from Saddam’s Ba’ath Party had been circulating in Najaf, blaming Shi’ite politicians for Iraq’s security crisis. The letter accused Shi’ite militias of slaughtering Iraqis at a time when the country lacks basic services, including gas, electricity and water.

Violence between Sunni and Shi’ite extremists has been on the rise since a bombing wrecked a Shi’ite shrine in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, on Feb. 22. The sectarian bloodletting has prompted the U.S. military to rush about 12,000 American and Iraqi troops to Baghdad to confront Sunni and Shi’ite gunmen.

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