- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 30, 2007

BAGHDAD — Bombers struck Shi’ite worshippers in two cities yesterday, and gunmen ambushed a busload of pilgrims in a series of attacks that killed at least 58 persons as more than 2 million Shi’ites jammed major shrines for ceremonies marking Ashoura, the holiest day of the Shi’ite calendar.

The bloodshed took place despite heightened security after a battle with messianic Shi’ites who authorities said planned a large assault on Ashoura ceremonies. With security so intense at the main venues, extremists chose targets in smaller cities where safety measures were less stringent.

In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up among a crowd of worshippers entering a Shi’ite mosque in Mandali near the Iranian border, killing 26 persons and wounding 47, according to police. At least 12 more died and 28 were wounded when a bomb exploded in a garbage can as Shi’ites were performing outdoor rituals in the largely Kurdish city of Khanaqin, police said.

In Baghdad, gunmen in two cars opened fire on a bus carrying pilgrims to the capital’s most important Shi’ite shrine, killing seven and wounding seven, police said. Hours later, mortar shells rained down on two mostly Sunni neighborhoods, killing nine and wounding 30 in what police said appeared to be a reprisal attack.

One person was killed in a mortar attack on a Shi’ite neighborhood, police said. Two policemen were killed in a bombing in Mosul, and a Shi’ite man was fatally shot in Baghdad, police said.

But intense security prevented major violence in the Shi’ite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, venues for the biggest and most important Ashoura commemorations. Police found eight bodies yesterday of persons slain by sectarian death squads in Baghdad, the lowest single-day total in months.

Ashoura ceremonies mark the 7th-century death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in a battle near Karbala that cemented the Sunni-Shi’ite schism. Worshippers beat themselves with chains, slice their heads with knives and pound their chests in expressions of grief over the death of Imam Hussein.

More than 1.5 million pilgrims, mostly Iraqis but from as far away as India and Pakistan, jammed the southern city of Karbala for the Ashoura commemorations, according to provincial Gov. Akeel al-Khazaali. Hundreds of thousands more joined rituals in Najaf, Baghdad and other cities.

In Karbala, all private transportation was banned — including bicycles — and pilgrims had to submit to body searches at dozens of checkpoints before reaching the two golden-domed shrines of Imam Hussein and his half brother Imam Abbas. U.S. unmanned surveillance aircraft flew over the city to look for signs of trouble, Mr. al-Khazaali said.

“Even if the terrorists tear us to pieces, we will not stop coming to visit Imam Hussein,” said Abbas Karim, 27, a laborer from Nasiriyah.

Security has been tight at Ashoura commemorations since a string of bombings and suicide attacks killed at least 181 persons at Shi’ite shrines in Baghdad and Karbala in 2004.

Last year’s Ashoura commemorations were largely peaceful, but suicide bombers killed 55 Shi’ites in 2005.

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