Iraqi Insurgents Kill 20 Pilgrims

Iraqis in Baghdad mourn a relative who was killed on the way to the Imam Moussa Kadhim shrine. The U.S. military reported
Iraqis in Baghdad mourn a relative who was killed on the way to the Imam Moussa Kadhim shrine. The U.S. military reported "relatively little violence." (By Karim Kadim -- Associated Press)
By Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 21, 2006

BAGHDAD, Aug. 20 -- Sunni Arab insurgents armed with rifles and mortars killed 20 pilgrims and wounded 300 others who thronged the capital Sunday for one of Shiite Islam's most important holidays, authorities said.

But in a sign of just how routine the intense sectarian bloodshed in the capital has become, the U.S. military reported "relatively little violence." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki touted the "success" of Iraqi security forces "in preventing the terrorists from killing innocents."

The carnage took place despite a weekend ban on car traffic and months of planning by Iraqi security forces to control an estimated million pilgrims who flocked here to commemorate the death of Imam Moussa Kadhim, a revered figured in Shiite Islam. About 1,000 people were killed during the holiday last year when rumors of a suicide bomber triggered a stampede.

The killings also highlighted the growing animosity between Sunni and Shiite Muslims that many fear is causing Iraq to slide into a full-blown civil war.

The largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Islamic Party, denounced the Shiite-led government for announcing the deaths of only Shiite pilgrims. It said Shiite militias had attacked innocent Sunni residents Sunday without interference from the police, killing at least seven people and wounding many more.

"These militias want to extinguish the flame of peace," said Alaa Makki, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party. "The militias played a very bad role today."

Shiites from across Iraq flocked to the Kadhimiyah area of Baghdad over the past three days to prepare for Sunday's holiday. The office of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr estimated that 2 million came Sunday, although the U.S. military put the figure at 1 million.

Pilgrims began marching in religious parades at 3 a.m., thrashing their backs with heavy metal chains to the beat of a drum in an act of ritual penance.

"We wish to be bombed and killed so that we will be in the immortal paradise along with Imam Kadhim and the rest of the prophet's family," said Malik al-Majid, 46, a leader of the parade.

The violence began before dawn when 150 to 200 Sunni insurgents began firing mortars and shooting at pilgrims in the Solaikh and Adamiyah districts of Baghdad, said Brig. Gen. Karim Taha, commander of nearby Iraqi army troops. Snipers also targeted worshipers in the Karkh, Kadhimiyah and Bab al-Muadham areas.

Luai Hussein, a Shiite worshiper, said he was returning at 11 a.m. from ceremonies at the gold-domed shrine where Imam Kadhim is believed to be buried when two rooftop snipers shot and killed his friend.

"Be careful, there are snipers!" he recalled members of the Mahdi Army, Sadr's militia, shouting as they fired guns into the air.

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