- The Washington Times - Friday, March 17, 2006

BAGHDAD — With bombs and drive-by shootings, anti-Shi’ite extremists targeted pilgrims on the road to the holy city of Karbala yesterday, as political leaders remained divided over how to shape a broad-based government to work for peace in Iraq.

In Sunni Arab areas of western Baghdad, gunmen in passing vehicles killed three Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims and wounded five others. To the south, bombs in a minibus and along the pilgrimage road killed two persons and wounded nine.

North of the capital, helicopter-borne U.S. and Iraqi troops pressed their sweep through a 100-square-mile swath of the Sunni Triangle to break up a growing insurgent stronghold, the U.S. military said.

No resistance or casualties were reported as the offensive picked up dozens of insurgent suspects.

The operation was mounted Thursday northeast of the city of Samarra, where an insurgent bombing on Feb. 22 severely damaged a major Shi’ite shrine and ignited days of sectarian bloodshed across Iraq. More than 500 people died.

That spasm of violence deepened the political divide — between representatives of the Shi’ite majority and Sunni minority — that is blocking formation of a new government of national unity. An all-party meeting was scheduled for late yesterday to try to move those negotiations forward.

An American soldier was fatally shot Thursday while manning an observation post in Samarra, 60 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. The soldier was from the 101st Airborne Division’s 3rd Brigade Combat Team, part of which is participating in the airborne sweep.

At least 2,312 members of the U.S. military have died since the war in Iraq started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.

Authorities had feared new attacks as tens of thousands of devout Shi’ites converged on Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, for Monday’s celebration of Arbaeen, a day of mourning for Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, who was killed at Karbala in 680.

The bloodshed in Baghdad began yesterday as groups of Shi’ite faithful, many of them parents with children in tow, trekked down city streets in the morning, headed for the southbound highway to Karbala.

To help guard against violence in Shi’ite holy cities, the U.S. military earlier this week announced it was dispatching a fresh battalion of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, about 700 troops, to Iraq from its base in Kuwait to provide extra security.

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