BAGHDAD, Iraq—Near-simultaneous suicide bombings in two Iraqi cities killed at least 143 people Tuesday as they crowded near mosques to celebrate Shiite Islam's most important holiday.
Iraqi and American officials blamed the bombings, just outside revered Shiite shrines in Baghdad and Karbala, on terrorists seeking to provoke conflict among Iraq's ethnic groups and to disrupt U.S. attempts to return sovereignty to a transitional Iraqi government on July 1.
A main suspect, they said, was Abu Musab al Zarqawi, a Jordanian with reputed links to al-Qaida, who allegedly authored an intercepted letter calling for attacks on Shiites.
It was Iraq's deadliest day since major combat operations ended last May, and marked the deepening of an apparent strategic shift by insurgents, who increasingly are targeting vulnerable Iraqis rather than American military forces.
Three suicide bombers infiltrated the crowds and blew themselves up in and around the shrine in Baghdad's Khadhimiya neighborhood, killing 58 and wounding 200, U.S. Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said. At least one suicide attacker detonated a bomb in Karbala and other prepositioned bombs went off in the crowd of worshipers, killing 85 and wounding more than 100, he said. Mortars also were lobbed in Karbala, but were ineffective, he added.
"The terrorists had this well planned out," Kimmitt said. "They wore clothing—more than likely—which would hide the fact that they were wearing explosive-vest devices. ... "
Shortly after the attacks at the Baghdad mosque, residents were mopping up pools of blood and collecting bits of seared body parts in metal bowls. Shoes and clothing lay in a pile. Bloodstains were visible on the colorful exterior of the shrine, the third holiest in Shiite Islam.
The attacks could have been worse. Police arrested four would-be bombers in Basra, including two women wearing belts laden with explosives. There also were unconfirmed reports of car bombings thwarted in Baghdad. One attacker whose bomb failed to detonate was arrested by Iraqi police in Baghdad, Kimmitt said.
Explosions ripped through crowds in both cities between 9:30 and 10 a.m. local time. Outside the Imam Musa al Khadam shrine in Baghdad, witnesses said a small explosion was followed by a much larger one, which the onlookers said was caused by a suicide bomber strapped with dynamite.
"People screamed after the first explosion, and then the second one took the air away," said Fakhir Jabbar, 56.
A veteran of gruesome battles during the Iran-Iraq war, Jabbar said he began trying to help the injured.
"I held a leg in one hand and an arm in another," he said.
In many previous terrorist bombings, crowds accused American forces of direct involvement. Witnesses outside the Baghdad mosque Tuesday said they suspected Sunni Muslim religious extremists in the bombings, but they did blame the American military for not protecting the mosque.
Jabbar questioned why no U.S. forces were around the mosque. He acknowledged, though, that one probable aim of the attackers is to turn Shiites against the Americans.
"Yes, the insurgents want us to think like that," he said.
Kimmitt said American forces had set up checkpoints in what he called an "outer cordon," but left security near the mosque to Iraqi forces. He said U.S. troops didn't want to offend Iraqis by operating too close to a shrine in the midst of a religious celebration.
After the bombings, an American convoy summoned to aid Iraqi forces had to retreat from the Baghdad scene under a hail of stones thrown by enraged Shiites.
There were reports of Western journalists being roughed up in both cities, and a BBC correspondent said he saw an Iranian pilgrim savagely beaten by a crowd.
"This is the work of Jews and American occupation forces," blared a voice over a loudspeaker outside the Baghdad shrine.
Iraqi Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population, were brutally repressed under Saddam Hussein, who comes from Iraq's Sunni minority. This was the first time in three decades that they were allowed to openly celebrate their Ashoura holiday, which commemorates the seventh-century killing of their sect's founder, Imam Ali Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Beginning at dawn, they gathered by the thousands near their holiest mosques in Baghdad and about 100 miles away in Karbala, some gashing themselves with whips and swords.
The Khadhimiya shrine in northern Baghdad contains the tombs of two Shiite saints, Imam Mousa Kazem and his grandson Imam Muhammad al Jawad. The Imam al Hussein Mosque in Karbala is the second holiest Shiite mosque, after one in Najaf.
Many Iranian pilgrims died in the blast. Violence also marred a Shiite religious ceremony Tuesday in Quetta, Pakistan, where at least 40 people were killed by shots fired into a crowd.
Tensions between Shiites and Sunnis are seen as one of the biggest threats to stability in Iraq. Last month, American officials released a letter they said was written by Zarqawi. The letter, which contains a vitriolic diatribe against Shiites, outlined a strategy of attacks on Shiites aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.
"(The Shiites) in our opinion are the key to change," says an official U.S. translation of the letter. "I mean that targeting and hitting them in (their) religious, political, and military depth will provoke them. ... If we succeed in dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis. ... "
Asked whether Zarqawi may have planned Tuesday's bombings, Kimmitt said: "Certainly one of the chief suspects in this would be Zarqawi, just by the methods that have been used in the past. ... Suicide, spectacular, symbolic—all those would point to some sort of transnational organization."
The attacks came the day after Iraq's U.S.-appointed Governing Council—a multiethnic, multireligious body—announced agreement on a temporary constitution that includes Western-style guarantees of civil rights. The senior U.S. official in Iraq, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, was supposed to sign the document Wednesday, but officials suggested that would be postponed for three official days of mourning.
Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi offered condolences to the victims. "At the same time, we accuse the terrorists and evildoers, who obviously are aiming at disrupting the unity of Iraq and trying to destabilize the country through sectarian strife," he said. "And obviously this will not deter us from continuing our efforts to stay and work together in order to build a new Iraq."
A transcript of the letter attributed to Zarqawi can be found on the Web at www.cpa-iraq.org/transcripts/20040212_zarqawi_full.html
(Dilanian reports for The Philadelphia Inquirer.)
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20040302 Iraq blasts, 20040302 Baghdad blast, 20040302 Karbala blasts