Violence Targeted at Shiites On Holy Day Kills 60 in Iraq
Cultists' Toll in Fierce Battle Sunday Put at 263

By Ernesto Londoño and Saad Sarhan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 31, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 30 -- Attackers using bombs, rockets and guns killed at least 60 Shiite worshipers Tuesday as they observed their most sacred holiday, Iraqi officials said.

The day's deadliest incident occurred in the town of Baladruz, in Diyala province in eastern Iraq, when a suicide bomber walked through the main gate of the Ali al-Akbar mosque and detonated his explosives, killing 17 people and injuring at least 57, according to Ali al-Khaiyam, a police spokesman.

The worshipers were marking Ashura, which commemorates the death of the prophet Muhammad's grandson in a 7th-century battle at Karbala, in what is now southern Iraq. The city is the focal point of the 10-day festival, which culminated Tuesday.

At least 11 other Shiites observing the holiday were killed in Khanaqin, also in Diyala, near the Iranian border, after a bomb left at a market exploded, Khaiyam said.

A roadside bomb killed 15 Shiites participating in an Ashura procession in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala, and injured at least 30 civilians, according to Brig. Sadoun Salih of the Interior Ministry.

Five other people were killed in the province in other violent acts, Khaiyam said.

Violence targeting Shiites also broke out in Baghdad. A roadside bomb in the sprawling Shiite enclave of Sadr City struck an Ashura procession, killing seven people and wounding 23, Salih said.

In other neighborhoods, gunmen fired Katyusha rockets at processions and used machine guns to attack passing buses heading to Karbala, Salih added. He said at least three people died in those incidents.

In another attack on Shiites headed to Karbala, gunmen opened fire on passengers in a bus leaving Baghdad, killing seven, Salih said.

Mortar shells crashed down into the predominantly Shiite neighborhood of Kadhimiyah, in northern Baghdad, on Tuesday morning. "We have stopped going out or moving in the neighborhood, because one of the rockets fell just in front of my house," resident Yaarub Fadhil Hussein, 41, said in a telephone interview.

Meanwhile, at the scene of a fierce day-long battle Sunday near Najaf between the followers of a Shiite cult leader and Iraqi and U.S. troops, a clearer picture of the group emerged Tuesday as Iraqi investigators explored its village. A Washington Post special correspondent toured the site.

The village, home to at least 700 people, had several brick houses, a large tented area where meals were served, a printing press used to publish a newspaper, and stockpiles of dry food. There were also a small mosque and dozens of vehicles.

After two days of varying estimates, Iraqi officials said Tuesday that 263 members of the group were killed in Sunday's battle. Provincial officials, who last month took control of security matters in Najaf province, said they acted on intelligence reports to thwart what they described as a plot to conduct a large-scale attack on Shiite leaders and shrines. Such an attack could have exacerbated sectarian violence in Iraq.

Iraqi officials said they were still sifting through conflicting accounts of the leader's background and motivation. The man, identified by a spokesman for the prime minister's office as Samer Abu Kamar, claimed to be the 12th imam, a messianic figure who Shiites believe will reemerge after a centuries-long disappearance to restore order and justice in a war-weary world.

Ahmad Diabel, a spokesman for the Najaf provincial government, said investigators believe that the group, known as the Soldiers of Heaven, received funding from al-Qaeda in Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group that has often targeted Shiites.

"This is definitely a great victory for the security forces, especially in Najaf," Col. Ali Nomas Jerao, a spokesman for those forces, said Tuesday. He said the operation was the first under full Iraqi military control to defeat "terrorists in the mid-Euphrates area." U.S. air and ground units supported the Iraqi troops.

Iraqi investigators combed the destroyed village, walking among piles of charred corpses, ash and debris. They also began questioning about 500 men detained after the battle.

Abu Kamar, a Shiite, might have sought to target Shiite leaders because he saw them as a threat to his messianic claim, officials and a scholar said. Officials described his followers as uneducated people who might have been drawn to him as a symbol of hope and redemption.

In recent months, the group's members cut nearly all ties to the outside world, Iraqi officials said. The armed men planned to travel to Najaf on buses, in the guise of ordinary Shiite pilgrims observing Ashura, they said. The attack was probably intended to unfold Tuesday.

Sarhan reported from Najaf. Staff writer Joshua Partlow and special correspondents Naseer Nouri and Khalid Saffar in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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