More than 20 pilgrims killed in Iraq's holy city of Karbala


A BOMB yesterday killed at least 23 Shia pilgrims and wounded 140 on the outskirts of Karbala, southeast of Baghdad.

The pilgrims were walking to the holy city from Hilla to attend the commemoration of Arbaeen, the anniversary of the slaying in 680AD of Imam Hussein – the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad – by Sunni forces loyal to the Caliph Yezid.

Two roadside bombs in the capital also targeted pilgrims, killing one and wounding seven. On Monday, a woman said to hail from a northern al-Qaeda stronghold slipped into a group of pilgrims and blew herself up, killing 41 people.

Hundreds of thousands of the faithful are travelling on foot to Karbala to take part in the annual ritual which, this year, has drawn six million pilgrims from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and India.

Since the fall of the Baathist regime in 2003, Shia pilgrims have been regularly attacked by al-Qaeda and Sunni extremists known as “Taqfiris”. During the rule of ousted president Saddam Hussein, huge Shia pilgrimages were banned because they were used by the Shia Dawa (Mission) party to stage demonstrations against the regime.

The revival of Shia pilgrimages after the US occupation is seen by many Sunnis and secularists as an assertion of Shia power. The massing of pilgrims is far more explosive than Protestant marches through Catholic areas in Northern Ireland.

The death of Imam Hussein was a critical moment in the power struggle between Sunnis, who argued that the Prophet should be succeeded by his companions, and Shias, who held that his family should rule. Sunnis won and today constitute 85 per cent of the world-wide Muslim Umma.

Shia pilgrimages to the tombs of martyrs sustain the 1,300-year rift and keep antagonism alive.

The aim of attacks on Shias was originally to stir sectarian tension and violence. However, in recent years Shias have not retaliated against Sunnis.

The two communities remain deeply traumatised by the blood- letting and sectarian cleansing that followed the 2006 bombing of a Shia shrine in Samarra. Shia militias involved in the mayhem have been brought under control by the government and by Iran.

The objective of recent attacks on Shia pilgrims as well as ministries and hotels is to demonstrate that the Shia-dominated government cannot provide security ahead of the March 7th parliamentary elections.

Tensions between Sunnis and the government have been stoked recently by a ban on 500 candidates, the majority of them Sunnis and secularists, due to their alleged connections with the outlawed Baath party.

While the lifting of the ban yesterday by an appeals court could improve the political atmosphere, it is not clear how many of the disqualified candidates will stand, since the court has ruled that they would not be able to take up seats until they have been cleared of connections with the ousted Baath regime.

Post-election disqualifications could produce an angry backlash if popular candidates are denied seats.