BAGHDAD — Fighting erupted Tuesday between rival Shiite militias in Karbala during a religious festival, claiming 51 lives and forcing officials to abort the celebrations and order up to 1 million Shiite pilgrims to leave the southern city.
Security officials said Mahdi Army gunmen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr fired on guards around two shrines protected by the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Residents of Karbala contacted by telephone said snipers were firing on Iraqi security forces from rooftops. Explosions and the rattle of automatic weapons fire could be heard during telephone calls to reporters in the city 50 miles south of Baghdad.
In addition to the deaths, security officials said at least 247 people were wounded, including women and children.
The clashes appeared to be part of a power struggle among Shiite groups in the sect’s southern Iraqi heartland, which includes the bulk of the country’s vast oil wealth.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said entrances and exits to Karbala “have been secured and more forces are on the way from other provinces.” Officials said buses were sent to evacuate pilgrims from the city, which includes some of the world’s most sacred Shiite shrines.
Gunfights also broke out Tuesday between Mahdi militiamen and followers of the Supreme Council in at least two Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad and in Kut, about 100 miles southeast of the capital, police said.
Extra police took up positions in the center of another Shiite city, Diwaniyah, after gunmen fired on a mosque associated with the Supreme Council, police said. A curfew was clamped on the Shiite city of Najaf after a mortar round exploded on a major square, causing no casualties, officials said.
Pilgrims reportedly attack police
The trouble started in Karbala late Monday as tens of thousands of Shiites were streaming into the city for the Shabaniyah festival marking the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, the 12th and last Shiite imam who disappeared in the 9th century. Devout Shiites believe he will return to Earth to restore peace and harmony.
Scuffles broke out between police and pilgrims as the crowd tried to push through the security checkpoints near the Imam al-Hussein mosque, the focal point of the celebrations. At least five people were killed, police said.
Early Tuesday, crowds of angry pilgrims chanting religious slogans surged through the streets, attacking police and mosque guards, witnesses said. Two ambulances were set ablaze, sending a huge column of black smoke over the city.
Gunmen appeared, firing automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars at security forces and sending panicked pilgrims fleeing the area, police and witnesses said.
A member of the city council said the center of town was in chaos, with pilgrims running in all directions to escape the gunfire.
“We don’t know what’s going on,” said the councilman, who wouldn’t allow use of his name for security reasons. “All we know is the huge numbers of pilgrims were too much for the checkpoints to handle and now there is shooting.”
Some rounds struck fuel tanks on the roofs of three small hotels, setting them ablaze, police said.
Celebrations cancelled, tensions mount
With the situation spiraling out of control, police ordered pilgrims out of the center of the city, effectively canceling the celebrations which were to reach their climax Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
“The area where they (the pilgrims) were gathering has been evacuated in order to control those (criminals),” said Khalaf, the Interior Ministry spokesman. He said the gunmen were gathering in three areas in the old town and security forces were chasing them.
In Baghdad, a senior government security official blamed the fighting on al-Sadr’s followers, saying they provoked the confrontations Monday night and were responsible for the shooting Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid enflaming the situation.
But a spokesman for al-Sadr, Ahmed al-Shaibani, denied that the Mahdi Army was involved in the Karbala fighting. Al-Sadr called for an independent inquiry into the clashes and urged his supporters to cooperate with the authorities “to calm the situation down,” al-Shaibani said.
Tensions have been rising in southern Iraq as rival Shiite groups maneuver for power, especially in the oil-rich area around Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city.
Concern over Basra is mounting as British forces prepare to evacuate the last of their forces from the city and redeploy to the airport 12 miles to the north.
On Tuesday, Hakim al-Miyahi, head of the security committee of the Basra municipal council, told The Associated Press that Iraqi forces were incapable of maintaining order in the city once the British leave and that the Baghdad government should send reinforcements.
“Some disorder will occur in the absence of British troops in Basra,” he said. “It will take at least two army divisions to fill the gap that will be created by British troop withdrawal.”
Elsewhere, hundreds of U.S. and Iraqi forces backed by helicopters and jet fighters killed 33 Sunni insurgents who were holding back the water supply to the Shiite town of Khalis, about 50 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. command said.
The assault began before dawn Monday when a joint force was landed by helicopter in the village of Gubbiya, 10 miles east of Khalis. The assault force killed 13 fighters and attack aircraft killed 20 others, the military said. The area is known to be controlled by al-Qaida in Iraq.
Also Tuesday, a roadside bomb exploded in northern Khalis, killing four Iraqi soldiers, the Iraqi army said.
In Fallujah, 40 miles west of Baghdad, mourners buried 11 victims of a mosque suicide bombing Monday. Ten people were wounded in the attack, which police said targeted an anti-al-Qaida Sunni sheik.
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