Blast Outside Shrine in Najaf Kills at Least 13, Ruins Tombs

By Ellen Knickmeyer and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 7, 2006

NAJAF, Iraq, April 6 -- Bombs packed inside a minibus exploded Thursday outside one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam, shattering ancient tombs and enveloping pilgrims in balls of flame.

The attack near the Imam Ali shrine here in the southern city of Najaf killed at least 13 people, police said. Striking at the heart of territory dominated by Iraq's Shiite religious parties, it also risked a new cycle of Sunni-Shiite violence.

Tensions are still roiling from the Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, which sparked the deadliest sectarian bloodletting since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. More than 1,000 Iraqis have been killed in retaliatory violence, and the U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration reported tens of thousands have been driven from their homes.

The precise target of Thursday's attack was not clear. Besides pilgrims, hundreds of political demonstrators had gathered at the shrine for the latest in a series of demonstrations in Najaf in behalf of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafari.

Maj. Emad Muhammad, the Najaf police patrol chief, said he believed the target was the demonstration for Jafari. Police had blocked entrances to the old city, which includes the shrine, for fear of attack on what Muhammad said were more than 1,000 demonstrators.

The suicide attacker was able to move within 150 yards of the shrine by taking a shortcut through the miles-wide Shiite graveyard adjoining the holy site, Muhammad said.

The Najaf shrine attracts Shiite pilgrims from neighboring Iran and around the world, and Shiites from Iraq and abroad ship their loved ones' remains for burial at the cemetery. The minibus carrying the bombs was parked among buses that ferry pilgrims and minibuses that are used to transport coffins.

The blast burned the pilgrims' buses to thin metal frames pocked with flesh, muscle and bone. Women struggled with Iraqi soldiers, trying to push past them to find out whether their sons were among the dead.

Most of the victims were immolated, said Naseer Ali, an official at the Najaf health directorate.

The blast also shattered brick tombs just inside the graveyard. No security officers were among the casualties. "Today's terrorist attack hit only civilians," Hasan Abtan, Najaf's deputy governor, said by telephone.

Authorities shut down entrances to the city and imposed a curfew. Dozens of traffic officers appeared at intersections throughout the city, waving emergency vehicles to the scene of the attack.

The gold-domed shrine contains the tomb of Imam Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. Shiites believe Ali to have been the prophet's heir. Authorities said the shrine was not damaged.

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