- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 6, 2006

BAGHDAD — A suicide car bomber targeted Iranian pilgrims yesterday as they got off tour buses at a Shi’ite Muslim shrine south of Baghdad, killing 12 persons and wounding 39.

The bomber struck about 7:15 a.m. in Kufa, a Shi’ite holy city 100 miles south of Baghdad, detonating a minivan loaded with explosives behind two buses unloading pilgrims, police said.

Eight of the dead and 22 of the injured were Iranians, said Dr. Munthir al-Athari of the provincial health department. Three of the dead Iranians were women, he said.

At least 19 other persons were killed yesterday across Iraq, including 11 men whose bullet-riddled bodies were found in several locations across Baghdad, police said. Many showed signs of torture.

No group took responsibility for the Kufa blast, but suspicion fell on Sunni religious extremists and supporters of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. Many Sunnis fear the rise of Iraq’s Shi’ite majority will lead to greater influence by Shi’ite-dominated Iran, with which Iraq fought a bloody war from 1980 to 1988.

“The purpose is clear — to stop pilgrimage. I suspect that the criminal Ba’athists are behind this act,” said the provincial governor, Assad Abu Kallal, referring to members of Saddam’s ousted Sunni-dominated party.

Hamid Reza Asefi, a spokesman for the Iranian Foreign Ministry, called the attack a “barbaric terrorist act” and urged the Iraqi government to find those responsible. He blamed U.S.-led coalition forces, saying they failed to maintain security in Iraq, Iranian television reported.

The U.S. Embassy condemned the bombing “in the strongest terms” and offered condolences to the victims’ families.

“The perpetrators of this attack show no respect for Islam and the long tradition of pilgrimage to holy sites,” the embassy said. “Such violence seeks to inflame religious sensibilities and sow discord among Iraq’s people.”

U.S. officials have offered to discuss the situation in Iraq with Iranian authorities, but Tehran has refused.

Last month, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. George Casey, said Iran had become the main source of materials for makeshift roadside bombs — an accusation Tehran denies.

The Kufa attack occurred a day after the U.S. military predicted an increase in vehicle bombings now that Abu Ayyub Masri has succeeded the late Abu Musab Zarqawi as head of al Qaeda in Iraq.

Masri is an explosives expert who specializes in such attacks, Maj. Gen. William Caldwell said. The U.S. military has recorded at least 125 car bombings since Zarqawi was killed by a U.S. air strike.

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