As published by MSNBC.com:
Blasts kill at least 143 at Iraqi Shiite shrines
Attacks in Baghdad, Karbala add up to bloodiest day since war's end
MSNBC News Services
Updated: 12:21 p.m. ET March 02, 2004
KARBALA, Iraq - Simultaneous explosions ripped through crowds of worshippers Tuesday at Shiite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and the holy city of Karbala, killing at least 143 in the bloodiest day since the end of major fighting in Iraq, a U.S. official said. A third plot in the southern city of Basra was pre-empted with the arrests of four suicide bombers, police sources told The Associated Press.
The explosions in Baghdad and Karbala came during the Shiite festival of Ashoura and coincided with a bombing and shooting attack on Shiite worshippers in Quetta, Pakistan, that killed at least 41 people and wounded more than 150.
The attacks in Karbala and on the Kazimiya shrine in Baghdad used a combination of suicide bombers and planted explosives, along with mortars fired elsewhere in Karbala, U.S. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad. He said two people were being held in Karbala in connection with the attacks.
The death toll rose steadily in the hours after the near simultaneous attacks.
Three suicide bombers set off their explosives in and around Baghdad's Kazimiya shrine, killing 58 and wounding 200, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt told reporters. At least one suicide attacker blew himself up and pre-set explosives went off in Karbala, killing 85 and wounding more than 100, he said.
A fourth suicide bomber whose explosives did not detonate was captured at Kazimiya, and four people were arrested in connection to the attack in Karbala, which also involved mortar fire, Kimmitt told reporters in Baghdad.
An Iranian Interior Ministry official told Reuters that between 40 and 50 of the dead were Shiite pilgrims from Iran who traveled to Iraq for the festival.
Basra attack averted
A third attack in Basra was averted with the arrests of two men and two women, the police sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the AP.
The men men -- a Syrian and an Iraqi -- were arrested after a car bomb was found outside the Seyed Ali al-Musawi Mosque in central Basra, they said.
Tens of thousands of worshipers were in the area when the bombers were discovered just after noon.
Later in the day, in the al-Maqal neighborhood of Basra, police arrested two women who were wearing explosives-laden belts as the marched in a procession to mark Ashoura.
The attacks sparked a wave of Shiite outrage -- much of it directed at U.S. troops in the Iraqi capital. U.S. soldiers who arrived at Kazimiya were attacked by angry crowds throwing stones and garbage, injuring two Americans.
Jordanian linked to al-Qaida called ‘prime suspect’
"This is the work of Jews and American occupation forces," a loudspeaker outside Kazimiya blared. Inside, cleric Hassan Toaima told an angry crowd, "We demand to know who did this so that we can avenge our martyrs."
There was no immediate claim of responsibility for the attacks. But Kimmitt, the U.S. general, called Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian believed to be linked to al-Qaida and bent on fomenting sectarian violence in Iraq, a “prime suspect.” U.S. officials have said that Zarqawi was planning spectacular attacks on Shiites aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.
“This is a message from Zarqawi to the Iraqi people,” Rubaie told CNN from Baghdad. “We will not react in a sectarian way and his (Zarqawi’s) intention of fomenting civil war in this country will not be successful.”
Another council member, Adnan Pachachi, suggested that the signing of a newly agreed interim constitution for Iraq, which had been expected on Wednesday, would be delayed until after a three-day period of national mourning.
U.S. intelligence officials have long been concerned about the possibility of militant attacks on the Ashoura festival, and coalition and Iraqi forces bolstered security around Karbala and other Shiite-majority towns in the south during the pilgrimage.
Last month, U.S. officials released what they said was a letter from Zarqawi outlining a strategy of spectacular attacks on Shiites, aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.
Also Tuesday, insurgents threw a grenade into a U.S. Army Humvee as it drove down a Baghdad road, killing one 1st Armored Division soldier and wounding another.
The death brings to 548 the number of U.S. service members who have died since the United States launched the Iraq war in March. Most have died since President Bush declared an end to active combat May 1.
Blame falls on U.S., al-Qaida, Sunni extremists
Following the blasts at the Kazimiya shrine in Baghdad, panicked men and women, dressed in black, fled screaming and weeping as ambulances raced to the scene.
Angry mobs hurled stones at U.S. troops who later pulled into the square outside Kazimiya in Humvees and an armored vehicle.
Crowds of enraged survivors swarmed nearby hospitals, some blaming Americans for stirring up religious tensions by launching the war, others blaming al-Qaida or Sunni extremists.
Some witnesses at Kazimiya said the blasts were carried out by suicide bombers. The Kazimiya shrine in northern Baghdad contains the tombs of two other Shiite saints, Imam Mousa Kazem and his grandson Imam Muhammad al-Jawad.
The Ashoura festival, which marks the 7th century killing of Imam Hussein, is the most important religious period in Shiite Islam and draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and other Shiite communities to the Iraqi shrines.
In Beirut, a spokesman for Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, blamed American soldiers for the attacks, saying they were responsible for the security. Sheik Hamed Khafaf said U.S. officials had ignored repeated requests to bolster security for the pilgrims.
Shiite cleric Sheik Sayyed Akeel al-Khatib said the explosions, "especially those at Kazimiya," were perpetrated by suicide bombers. "These means they came from abroad and were not Iraqis," he told Lebanese Broadcasting Corp. TV.
Explosions strike Karbala
The Karbala blasts struck near the golden-domed shrine where Imam Hussein is buried, in a neighborhood of several pilgrimage sites. After the blasts, Shiite militiamen tried to clear the terrified crowds, firing guns into the air. Two more blasts went off about a half-hour later.
"We were standing there (next to the mosques) when we heard an explosion. We saw flesh, arms legs, more flesh. Then the ambulance came," said Tarar, an 18-year-old, giving only one name.
Two armed Iraqi policemen broke down in tears as they walked through the bomb site.
Iraqi militia initially tried to control the crowd and arrested two men the crowd attempted to lynch. Rumors swirled throughout the city as to the cause of the blasts, ranging from mortars fired from outside the town to suicide bombers in the crowd.
One witness said a bomb was hidden near the mosque.
"Many Iranians were killed, I was 10 yards away, it was hidden under rubbish," one witness, identifying himself only as Sairouz, said.
Kazimiya shrine targeted
The Kazimiya blasts went off inside the shrine's ornately tiled walls and outside in a square packed with street vendors catering to pilgrims. The street outside Kazimiya was littered with picnic baskets brought by pilgrims and thousands of shoes and sandals belonging to worshippers who had been praying inside the shrine.
The courtyard inside the shrine was strewn with torn limbs.
Hundreds of gunmen swarmed inside and outside the walled shrine as men wept. A U.S. helicopter hovered over the shrine. Black mourning banners traditional in Ashoura celebrations hung in tatters. Posters of prominent Shiite clerics were stained with blood.
"How is it possible that any man let alone a Muslim man does this on the day of al-Hussein," said Thaer al-Shimri, a member of the Shiite Al-Dawa party. "Today war has been launched on Islam."