- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 20, 2006

BAGHDAD — Snipers lurking on buildings and in a cemetery sprayed bullets into Shi’ite Muslim religious processions in the capital yesterday, killing at least 20 persons in another spasm of sectarian bloodletting that many Iraqis fear is pushing them toward civil war.

About 300 people were injured, mostly when they fell while running from gunfire in Sunni Arab-dominated areas along the parade routes. In one neighborhood, gunmen hid behind tombstones at a Sunni cemetery.

“I was walking, and someone got shot in front of me. It wasn’t random fire; it was a clear sniper attack,” said Mohammed Jassim, 32.

He said he could hear the faint crack of shots over the noise of the procession. “People panicked and started yelling: ‘It came from here, no, from there.’”

Women in black Islamic robes helped one another while running for cover. Many took refuge under an overpass, flinching and ducking at the sound of each gunshot.

It was relatively quiet elsewhere in Iraq, with eight killings reported.

The shootings occurred despite heavy security imposed in Baghdad by Iraqi and U.S. forces as well as a weekend driving ban designed to prevent car bombings amid the tit-for-tat violence that Shi’ites and Sunnis have waged since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shi’ite mosque in Samarra.

Still, the day’s main ceremonies went off peacefully at the golden-domed shrine to Imam Moussa Kadhim, one of 12 Shi’ite Muslim saints.

The attacks on pilgrims occurred in three or four neighborhoods at least a mile from the shrine where Kadhim is buried in the Kazimiyah neighborhood of north Baghdad. Shi’ites believe that Kadhim, who died in 799, was poisoned in prison by a Sunni caliph.

Pilgrims wearing white shrouds to symbolize their willingness to die for Islam chanted: “God bless [the prophet] Muhammad and his descendants” as they converged on the mosque.

“We heed your call, oh imam,” they proclaimed before entering the compound, beating their chests and flagellating themselves with steel chains in a traditional Shi’ite expression of grief.

Fadhil al-Sharaa, an aide to Shi’ite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, estimated that 1 million people participated in the processions. Other officials put the figure at 200,000 to 300,000.

The Health Ministry and the Interior Ministry both said 20 pilgrims were killed and 304 injured, only a few of the latter by bullets. Police said four militants, including two snipers, were killed by security forces.

The U.S. military confirmed the deaths of five civilians and was checking reports of 20 killed, spokesman Lt. Col. Barry Johnson said.

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