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Suicide bomber kills 12 al-Sadr followers

/ Source: The Associated Press

A suicide bomber struck Shiite worshippers Friday at a mosque run by followers of anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, killing at least 12 people, a day after Iraqi lawmakers approved a security pact with the United States.

The blast underlined fears on both sides of the argument — proponents of the deal warn the Iraqis aren't ready to take over their own security while opponents, led by the Sadrists, say the American presence is the main reason for the instability plaguing the country.

In Baghdad, thousands of al-Sadr's loyalists took to the streets to rally against the deal in the main Shiite district of Sadr City.

The bomber blew himself up among a group of men waiting to be searched near the green iron gate at the entrance of the main mosque in Musayyib, 40 miles south of Baghdad.

Worshippers — who had planned a protest against the pact after services — rushed outside or stood against the walls for protection against a possible roof collapse.

"When I reached the door ... I found it very hard to get away without stepping on bodies," said Hadi Radhi, a 40-year-old construction worker who was there. "We could not tell if they were dead or wounded."

Police and hospital officials said 12 people, including a woman who was begging for money nearby, were killed and 18 wounded. The U.S. military said eight civilians were killed and 15 wounded.

There was no claim of responsibility, but suicide bombings are associated with Sunni extremist groups. The U.S. military has warned Sunni insurgents are trying to provoke revenge attacks by Shiites in order to re-ignite sectarian warfare.

The mosque was formerly Sunni but had been taken over by the Sadrists after the 2003 fall of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, officials said.

Musayyib, in an area that contains a volatile mix of Sunni and Shiite extremists, has faced several attacks in the past, including a July 16, 2005, suicide bombing that killed some 90 people near the same mosque.

But along with the rest of the country, it has seen a steep drop of violence over the past year. The U.S. military handed responsibility for security in the surrounding Babil province to Iraqi forces last month.

The security pact, which still must be approved by the three-member presidential council, was backed by the ruling coalition's Shiite and Kurdish blocs and the largest Sunni Arab bloc, which wanted concessions for supporting the deal.

But al-Sadr, who commands a large following among impoverished Iraqi Shiites and a 30-seat bloc in the 275-seat parliament, rejected the pact and said U.S. troops should withdraw immediately.

Al-Sadr, who lives in Iran, issued a separate statement via his spokesman Sheik Salah al-Obeidi calling for three days of mourning and peaceful public protests as a show of opposition against the agreement.

His cease-fire order has been a key factor in the drop in violence over the past year, along with a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a U.S. troop buildup. His militia, which was responsible for some of the worst attacks of the war, has also been heavily targeted in U.S. and Iraqi operations.

A key aide warned that the American presence can only lead to more violence for Iraq.

"The explosion that took place today near a Shiite mosque in Musayyib town is one of the consequences of the security agreement," Sheik Abdul-Hadi al-Mohammadawi said during a sermon in the Sadrist stronghold of Kufa. "The Iraqi government cannot survive without the U.S. presence and as long as the Americans remain here, Iraq will be still a battlefield."

A car bomb also exploded in a central square in Baghdad, killing at least three people and wounding 13, according to police and hospital officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.

In Tehran, a hard-line Iranian cleric said the Iraqi parliament approved the deal under U.S. pressure but "did well" in deciding to put it to a referendum. The cleric, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, was referring to the decision by Iraq's Shiite bloc to agree to a Sunni demand that the pact be put to a nationwide referendum by July 30.

Jannati's measured remarks were a departure from the harsh criticism that Iranian authorities had leveled against the security pact while it was being negotiated, though they tempered their criticism as the pact moved toward approval by Iraqi lawmakers.