Shiite militia suspected in clashes in Baghdad, Karbala

BAGHDAD — A Shiite Muslim militia was suspected in violent clashes across Baghdad with a rival Shiite group late Tuesday after a bloody and chaotic day in a city south of the capital where hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had traveled to observe a religious ceremony.

Suspected members of the Mahdi Army militia raided at least six offices of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council in coordinated attacks around the capital.

It was unclear what triggered the raids or whether they were related to the earlier violence in Karbala, 70 miles to the south. The Mahdi Army and the Supreme Council's armed wing, the Badr Organization, have clashed frequently in recent weeks, and U.S. officials have warned that the rivalry between the groups is probably the greatest challenge to Iraq's long-term stability.

The U.S. military announced Tuesday that it had killed 33 insurgents in Khalis, a city 50 miles north of Baghdad, who'd seized control of a spillway that controls the flow of water to the city. Details of the action were few, and it couldn't be immediately determined whether there were any civilian casualties.

The Internet site of Radio Sawa, an Arabic-language station funded by the United States, reported that American soldiers had raided the Ishtar Sheraton Hotel in central Baghdad and detained six Iranians, including a woman, who were meeting with an official from Iraq's Ministry of Electricity. The U.S. military said it didn't have any information on the incident.

Police said the coordinated attacks in Baghdad began when gunmen struck a Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council office in the north Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhamiyah and kidnapped four people. An hour later, gunmen clashed with guards at a council office in the east Baghdad neighborhood of Habibiyah, killing five people and injuring 20.

Later in the night, council offices in the southwest Baghdad neighborhood of Amil and in Husseiniyah, a town just north of the capital, were attacked, though no casualties were reported.

In Karbala, Saleem Kadhem, a spokesman for the local health department, said that at least 52 people had been killed and 206 injured in violence that began Monday night and lasted into Tuesday, after Iraqi authorities ordered hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims who'd gathered for a religious ceremony to leave the city and go home. Thousands of Iraqi army reinforcements were dispatched to the city to try to quell the violence.

Suspicion for inciting the violence in Karbala fell on the Mahdi Army amid suggestions that the attacks were aimed at members of the Badr Organization who'd infiltrated the police. In the past month, the Mahdi Army also has been blamed for assassinating two provincial governors who were Badr Organization members.

Muqtada al Sadr, the fiery Shiite cleric who commands the Mahdi Army, has denied responsibility in the governors' deaths. A Mahdi Army spokesman dodged questions Tuesday about whether the group had instigated the fighting in Karbala.

A shop owner who witnessed the clashes said the fighting started when about 20 men armed with sticks and iron bars confronted police at a checkpoint late Monday. The witness, who asked that he not be named because he feared retaliation, said gunmen then appeared from multiple directions and began firing at the Iraqi police.

"The policemen started running towards the shrine of Imam Hussein," the shopkeeper said, referring to one of the two sites the pilgrims were visiting. "The crowds started running and hiding inside the shops and the hotels."

Three vehicles, including two police cars, were set on fire, the witness said.

Religious festivals have been the scene of violence on numerous occasions since U.S.-led troops invaded Iraq in 2003, but Iraqi government officials were quick to point out last month that there was little violence when Shiites gathered for another religious commemoration in Baghdad's Kadhamiyah neighborhood.

In unrelated incidents, police said they'd found 13 unidentified bodies across the capital.

(Collins reports for The Fresno Bee. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)