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.
Najaf is a base of at least two of the increasingly rivalrous Shiite religious parties now governing Iraq, including that of militant cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr in recent weeks has become the last major supporter of Jafari, whose nomination to remain as prime minister in Iraq's next government is opposed by a growing number of critics who call him an ineffective and polarizing figure.
Jafari continued to refuse to step down Thursday, insisting that he is the Shiites' legitimate nominee. "I am defending democracy. I will adhere to the results of democracy," he said at a news conference.
Sadr's camp remained equally adamant. "We will stick to the end with the candidate of the alliance, and we are not bargaining," Riyadh al-Nouri, head of the political committee of Sadr's bloc, said in Najaf.
In violence targeting another heavily guarded city, a suicide car bomb exploded Wednesday night at a U.S. and Iraqi military checkpoint leading into the western city of Fallujah, killing 10 civilians and wounding three Iraqi soldiers.
Since U.S. forces waged a major assault on the city in November 2004 in an attempt to drive out insurgents, Fallujah has been largely sealed off to prevent them from returning. But despite the well-guarded checkpoints on the few access roads into the city, armed groups have maintained a presence there.
An Iraqi army officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the blast occurred in a line of cars being searched as they entered the city.
The insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq asserted responsibility for the attack in postings placed in some of the city's mosques. The group said its intended targets were U.S. and Iraqi soldiers, not civilians.
Meanwhile, the bodies of six Iraqis were found on the main highway in the Ghazaliya neighborhood in western Baghdad, said Capt. Sami Hassan, a spokesman for the Baghdad police. Hassan said the six were "handcuffed, blindfolded and shot dead in the head."
In Baghdad's al-Salaam neighborhood, two roadside bombs targeting a police patrol killed three officers and wounded five, Hassan said.
In Iskandariyah, about 25 miles south of Baghdad, armed men in two cars sprayed bullets at a minibus carrying civilians, killing five, said Capt. Muthanna Ahmed, a spokesman for the Babil province police.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the political party of President Jalal Talabani, announced that eight graves were discovered Wednesday near the villages of al-Asri and Tubzawa in Kurdish-populated northern Iraq. A statement by the party said the graves held "1,000 remains."
"Most of the remains belonged to Kurds, Christians and Turkomen, including people executed after the 1991 uprising," the statement said, without elaborating. After the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the Iraqi military crushed a Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein's rule.
Hussein and seven co-defendants are on trial for the executions of 148 men and boys in Dujail, north of Baghdad, following an attempt to assassinate him in 1982.
Hussein was cross-examined Wednesday and acknowledged approving death warrants for people he said took part in the attempt on his life. He did not appear Thursday, when prosecutors cross-examined Awad Haman al-Bander, the former chief of Iraq's Revolutionary Court, who tried and condemned the Dujail defendants in a 16-day proceeding.
During Hussein's rule, many Iraqis saw the Revolutionary Court as a rubber stamp for whatever verdict and punishment he ordered. Part of the prosecution's case is intended to show that the court was not legitimate and that Bander and Hussein approved summary executions.
Bander insisted Thursday that all of the suspects had confessed, adding that many of the defendants acknowledged their membership in the Dawa party. At the time, membership in Dawa carried the death penalty; today the prime minister of Iraq, Jafari, is the head of the party.
"It was a legal and a just court," Bander said. "I was keen to carry out justice, and I hoped that the defendants would be found not guilty. . . . May God be my witness, it made us happy whenever a defendant was released." None of the defendants in the Dujail case was released, however; 46 died during interrogation.
Correspondents Jonathan Finer in Najaf and John Ward Anderson in Baghdad, special correspondent Bassam Sebti in Baghdad and other Washington Post staff members contributed to this report.