Assailants struck Shiite worshippers in three Iraqi cities Tuesday, killing at least 36 people in bombings and ambushes during the climax of ceremonies marking Ashoura, the holiest day in the Shiite calendar.
Police, meanwhile, questioned hundreds of suspects rounded up after a fierce weekend battle aimed at preventing even deadlier attacks.
The surge in violence came a day after Iraq’s army announced it had killed the leader of a heavily armed cult of messianic Shiites called “the Soldiers of Heaven” in a gunbattle aimed at foiling a plot to attack leading Shiite clerics and pilgrims in the southern city of Najaf.
Bombers target Shiite worshippers
The deadliest attack Tuesday occurred when a suicide bomber blew himself up among a crowd of worshippers entering a Shiite mosque, killing 16 people and wounding 57 in Mandalin, a predominantly Shiite city northeast of Baghdad and near the Iranian border.
To the north, a bomb left in a garbage can exploded about an hour earlier as scores of mostly Shiite Kurds were performing rituals in the city of Khanaqin, also near the Iranian border.
At least 13 people were killed and 39 were wounded in that attack, police Maj. Idriss Mohammed said, adding that most of the victims were Shiite Kurds, who comprise the majority in the city, about 90 miles northeast of Baghdad. Most Kurds are Sunni but a minority are Shiite.
The two bombings occurred on the edge of the volatile Diyala province, where fighting has raged for weeks between Sunni insurgents, Shiite militiamen and U.S.-Iraqi troops.
Gunmen in two cars also opened fire on a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims to the capital’s most important Shiite mosque at about 10:30 a.m. Tuesday in Baghdad, killing at least seven people and wounding seven others, police said.
The attacks came as millions of Shiites in Iraq commemorated Ashoura, marching in processions and beating themselves bloody in a frenzied show of grief over the 7th-century death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most revered Shiite saints.
Imam Hussein died in the battle of Karbala in A.D. 680. The battle cemented a schism in Islam between Shiites and Sunnis over leadership of the faith, a division that is at the heart of the sectarian violence that has spiraled in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, in particular since the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite mosque in Samarra.
Cult intended to kill leading clerics
The U.S. military said Iraqi security forces were sent to Najaf on Sunday after receiving a tip that gunmen were joining pilgrims headed to Najaf to stage a major attack on the holy city coinciding with Ashoura.
The fierce 24-hour battle in the area was ultimately won by Iraqi troops supported by U.S. and British jets and American ground forces, but the ability of a splinter group little known in Iraq to rally hundreds of heavily armed fighters was a reminder of the potential for chaos and havoc emerging seemingly out of nowhere. Members of the group, which included women and children, planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and kill as many leading clerics as possible, said Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi, the Iraqi commander in charge of the Najaf region.
The cult’s leader was among those who died in the battle, al-Ghanemi said. Although he went by several aliases, he was identified as Dia Abdul Zahra Kadim, 37, from Hillah, south of Baghdad, according to Abdul-Hussein Abtan, deputy governor of Najaf. Kadim had been detained twice in the past few years, Abtan said.
The American military said U.S. air power was called in after the Iraqis faced fierce resistance. American ground forces were also deployed after small arms fire downed a U.S. helicopter, killing two soldiers.
The U.S. military said more than 100 gunmen were captured but it did not say how many were killed. Iraq’s Defense Ministry, by contrast, raised its figures on Tuesday to say 263 militants were killed, 210 wounded and 392 captured.
Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari said those detained included 35 women and 31 children following reports that the gunmen had brought their families with them to make it easier to infiltrate the city.
Health and security officials in Najaf said they were still separating and counting the bodies and declined to release any figures.
Iraqi reporters saw the mangled bodies of several men lying in the courtyard of a small bomb-shattered brick building on the battlefield.
Plot to kill al-Sistani?
Senior Iraqi security officers, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information, said Monday that as part of the plot, three gunmen were captured in Najaf after renting a hotel room in front of the office of Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with plans to attack it.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said in remarks published Tuesday that he hopes sectarian militias will be dissolved and the Sunni insurgency ended within six months.
Al-Maliki made the optimistic prediction in an interview with the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat as U.S. and Iraqi forces prepare for a major security crackdown in Baghdad — the third attempt within a year to curb sectarian violence.
“The militias have to end and be transferred to political organizations and any competition with the state in its attempt to bring about security must end,” said al-Maliki, who owes his job in part to the backing of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, leader of the biggest Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army.
Tens of thousands converge on Karbala
Tens of thousands of pilgrims from around the country and the region, meanwhile, converged on Karbala, 45 miles northwest of Najaf, for Ashoura rituals.
Many, wearing black uniforms in a sign of mourning, beat their chests and foreheads as they headed to visit the two gold dome shrines that includes the tombs of Imam Hussein, and his half brother Imam Abbas.
“Even if the terrorists tear us into pieces we will not stop coming to visit al-Hussein,” said Abbas Karim, a 27-year-old laborer who came from the southeastern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.
In 2004 and 2005, suicide bombings by al-Qaida in Iraq killed at least 230 people during the ceremonies in Karbala.
Under Saddam Hussein, pilgrims from Iran were banned and even Iraq’s Shiites, who comprise about 60 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people, were restricted from performing the Ashoura rituals but they were resumed after his ouster, often turning into frenzied, blood-soaked outpourings of religious devotion.