Correction to This Article
A March 7 article incorrectly said the Iraqi government had taken over responsibility for security in Babil province from U.S. forces. U.S. forces maintain control of security in that province.

118 Shiite Pilgrims Killed in Iraq Attacks

A Shiite pilgrim in Karbala, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, was one of thousands converging on the city to observe a religious holiday.
A Shiite pilgrim in Karbala, about 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, was one of thousands converging on the city to observe a religious holiday. (By Alaa Al-marjani -- Associated Press)
By Ernesto Londoño and Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

BAGHDAD, March 6 -- At least 118 Shiite pilgrims were killed in a series of attacks across central Iraq on Tuesday, a wave of violence on the eve of one of Shiite Islam's most sacred holidays that appeared intended to widen Iraq's sectarian divide.

A Sunni insurgent group asserted responsibility for the carnage, which occurred three weeks into a U.S. and Iraqi effort to bring security to Baghdad and other parts of the country.

The attacks came a day after nine U.S. soldiers were killed in two roadside bombings, one of which was the deadliest single strike against U.S. ground troops this year. The U.S. military is deploying 21,500 additional troops, mainly in Baghdad, to enforce the security plan.

The roadside bombings, in Diyala and Salahuddin provinces, illustrated the continuing vulnerability of U.S. soldiers, who have been attacked in recent weeks by antiaircraft weapons, powerful armor-piercing roadside bombs and sniper fire.

In the northern Iraqi city of Mosul on Tuesday, armed men broke into a prison and freed 140 inmates, many of whom were suspected Sunni insurgents, said Husham al-Hamdani, head of the security committee in Nineveh province.

The worst attack against Shiites happened shortly after 4 p.m. on a major road in the central city of Hilla when two male suicide bombers detonated vests packed with explosives near a tent set up for pilgrims. The pilgrims were headed to Karbala to mark Arbaeen, the end of the 40-day commemorative period of mourning for one of Shiite Islam's holiest figures.

"We ran away because suddenly dust went up in the air from the middle of the crowd, and there were people flying with it," said Muhammad Hassan, 29, a pilgrim who was wounded in the back. "We were seeing corpses, heads, limbs flying around, dead children and women. Women were screaming and weeping. Children were crying."

The bombings in Hilla killed at least 77 people and injured more than 125. Nine other attacks targeting pilgrims elsewhere in the country left at least 41 people dead, according to Lt. Col. Abdullah Salman, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

Thousands of Iraqis embark on a pilgrimage to Karbala this time of year to mourn Imam Hussein, the prophet Muhammad's grandson. Many travel dozens of miles on foot in an act of penitential homage to Hussein.

A spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq, a Sunni insurgent group, called the attacks "more successful than we had expected." The spokesman, Abdul Rahman al-Ghrairy, said the attacks were part of a campaign to avenge the alleged rape of a Sunni woman by Shiite policemen in late February.

Ghrairy said in a telephone interview that two Saudi volunteers had carried out the Hilla bombings and that the target was a son of Shiite politician Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Ghrairy's claim could not be independently confirmed, and there were no reports that Hakim's son was at the scene of the blasts.

Hakim is the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the country's largest political party.

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