- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 9, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iraqi police and army troops fanned out around Karbala yesterday to safeguard the Shi’ite holy city as a mortar attack killed three pilgrims heading there for a religious festival.

At least 22 other persons were wounded — four critically — when three mortar rounds exploded among pilgrims in Musayyib, about 40 miles south of Baghdad.

Officials said they expected as many as 3 million pilgrims at the religious festival today in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad.

“Our forces have tightened their control on the ground and our only concern now is rockets launched from a far distance,” said Iraqi army Maj. Gen. Samir Abdullah.

Millions attend the festival observing the birthday of Imam al-Mahdi al-Muntadhar, a 9th-century religious leader. Many walk to Karbala from across Iraq, and several attacks already have occurred on processions heading to the city.

On Monday, Iraqi soldiers clashed with gunmen near Karbala during an operation to secure the area, leaving 14 militants and one Iraqi soldier dead, the prime minister’s office said. Last week, 13 Pakistani and Indian Shi’ite pilgrims and their Iraqi driver were ambushed and killed en route to the city.

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Karbala has seen a number of attacks — mostly involving suicide bombers — that have killed hundreds of people. The attacks are considered to have been the work of Sunni Arab extremist groups, including al Qaeda in Iraq.

Iraqi officials said police and army troops had deployed around Karbala ahead of today’s festival to prevent the infiltration of suicide bombers and terrorists. Cars have been banned since Wednesday.

One of the army units that will defend Karbala, the army’s 8th Division, was the first to come under full Iraqi control during a ceremony Thursday. U.S.-led forces turned over control of Iraq’s military command to the Shi’ite-led government, a step considered key toward the eventual withdrawal of foreign troops.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government defended its decision to shut down the Baghdad operations of Al Arabiya, a Dubai-based satellite TV channel, for one month.

Spokesman Ali al-Dabagh said some of Al Arabiya’s reporting staff promoted sectarian violence and that some of its reports supported terrorism.

The other pan-Arab satellite network, Al Jazeera, had its office in the capital closed two years ago.

Also yesterday, coalition authorities announced the deaths of two coalition soldiers — an American and a Briton.

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