Suicide Bomber Kills Dozens Outside Shiite Shrine in Iraq

By Andy Mosher and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 11, 2006

BAGHDAD, Aug. 10 -- A suicide bomber Thursday made his way to within a few yards of the entrance to one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines and detonated an explosives-laden belt, killing more than 30 people and sending a shock through a country already convulsed by sectarian violence.

Witnesses to the attack in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, about 90 miles south of Baghdad, said the bomb exploded at the last security checkpoint before the gates of the ornate shrine of Imam Ali. The attacker was being searched by police when he detonated his charge, they said.

At least 33 people were killed, according to Munthir Ithary, director of the Najaf Health Department, and 108 were wounded, many of them seriously. News services reported that the Iraqi Defense Ministry put the toll at 35 dead and 122 wounded.

A Sunni insurgent group asserted responsibility for the attack, according to a statement posted on a radical Islamic Web site. The group, called the Soldiers of the Prophet's Companions, boasted of taking the lives of "at least 30 rejectionists" -- a term used by radical Sunni sects that consider Shiites heretics. The statement warned that continued killings of Sunnis by Shiite death squads would spark more such attacks.

The bombing was the latest in a string of sectarian attacks in Iraq. Also on Thursday, a Shiite militia was reported to have engaged in heavy fighting with a Sunni tribe in Baghdad, where the Iraqi government and U.S. military forces are pursuing a new security program aimed at stanching religious bloodshed.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who heads a coalition government dominated by Shiite religious parties, said in a statement that such "brutal massacres" as the Najaf bombing "reveal the aggressive nature of terrorists . . . who are striving to fuel the sectarian sedition among the Iraqi people." Maliki blamed the attack on "Takfiris and Saddamists" -- radical Sunnis and those loyal to Hussein.

The shrine is revered as the burial place of Ali, the son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Belief by some Muslims that Ali was unjustly denied his rightful place as Muhammad's successor in the 7th century gave rise to the Party of Ali, or Shia Ali, which evolved into the Shiite branch of Islam.

Najaf and the adjoining city of Kufa have witnessed several devastating bombings in recent years.

In August 2004, a car bombing in Najaf killed a prominent Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, and more than 80 other people. The most recent such attack occurred in Kufa on July 18, when a suicide bomber caused a minivan to explode in the middle of a crowd of day laborers, killing more than 55 and wounding 100.

Shiites make up an estimated 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people. But the Shiite majority never held political power here until the U.S.-led invasion of 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni Muslim-dominated dictatorship and paved the way for elections in 2004 and 2005. Since the bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra in February, Sunnis and Shiites have been enmeshed in a cycle of retaliatory killings that has claimed an average of more than 100 lives a day.

In Tobji, a neighborhood in north-central Baghdad, residents said Thursday that the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, clashed with members of a Sunni tribe. Residents reported that four members of the Mahdi Army were killed and that the fighting subsided after U.S. troops sealed off the neighborhood.

"An unidentified group of armed men opened fire on the people," said Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed al-Askari. "Our troops were nearby, and they surrounded the area and arrested some men of this armed group. It was clashes among the people of the area itself, and it is not that serious."

Northeast of Baghdad, in the city of Baqubah, a commando brigade from the Shiite-dominated Interior Ministry raided the home of Delsooz Ahmed Mohammed, an ethnic Kurd who serves on the council of Diyala province.

According to another council member, Hussein al-Zubaidi, the commandos insulted Mohammed and broke some of his furniture before a ranking officer intervened and apologized.

Also in Baqubah, a roadside bomb in the center of the city killed one police officer and wounded nine people, a mortar attack in a western neighborhood killed another policeman, and gunmen in two cars fired on police headquarters, killing two officers, according to police Capt. Muhannad Bawi.

Sarhan reported from Najaf. Special correspondents Hasan Shammari in Baqubah and K.I. Ibrahim and Saad al-Izzi in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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