Riots at Iraqi Religious Festival Leave 28 Dead

Smoke from burning cars clouds a street in Karbala. Fighting yesterday between rival Shiite militias prompted the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.
Smoke from burning cars clouds a street in Karbala. Fighting yesterday between rival Shiite militias prompted the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of pilgrims. (Associated Press)
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

BAGHDAD, Aug. 28 -- Riots broke out during a religious festival in the holy city of Karbala on Tuesday, prompting the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims and leaving 28 people dead, police said.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad predicted at a televised news conference that the authority of the U.S. military will soon collapse in Iraq. "The political power of the occupiers is being destroyed rapidly and very soon we will be witnessing a great power vacuum in the region," Ahmadinejad said. "We, with the help of regional friends and the Iraqi nation, are ready to fill this void."

On Tuesday night, U.S. troops raided a Baghdad hotel and took away a group that a U.S.-funded radio station said included six members of an Iranian delegation here to negotiate contracts with Iraq's government, the Associated Press reported.

Troops led about 10 blindfolded and handcuffed men out of the hotel in central Baghdad. Other soldiers carried out what appeared to be luggage and at least one briefcase and a laptop computer bag, the AP reported.

The Iranian Embassy did not confirm the report, but said seven Iranians -- an embassy employee and six members of a delegation from Iran's Electricity Ministry -- were staying at the hotel, the AP reported. A U.S. military spokesman declined to comment.

Karbala police spokesman Raheem Imshawer said the violence in that city began after police attempted to confiscate weapons at the entrance to the area surrounding the shrines to Muhammad al-Mahdi, one of the 12 historical imams revered by many Shiites. Pilgrims had walked to Karbala, about 70 miles south of Iraq, from across the country to celebrate the birth of Mahdi in what was scheduled to be a two-day festival.

Iraqi television channels showed chaos erupting in the town square near the two shrines about 11 a.m., with some people firing weapons randomly while others stampeded away from the scene. Within a few hours, the pilgrims had been evacuated from the city in buses and minivans and a curfew had stopped all vehicle traffic in the area. Imshawer said at least 145 people were injured in the clashes.

Imshawer said many of the gunmen were followers of Moqtada al-Sadr, the influential cleric whose followers make up Iraq's largest Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army. Over the past several months, the group has battled the Badr Organization, a rival Shiite group, for control of southern Iraq, where the U.S. military maintains a minimal presence. The majority of police officers in the region are loyal to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the Shiite political group that controls the Badr Organization.

In the past few weeks, two provincial governors have been assassinated in southern Iraq, escalating tensions between the two militias. Both men were members of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the largest party in the Iraqi parliament.

Many of the estimated 1 million pilgrims ignored prohibitions against carrying weapons. Muntadar al-Jabiri, a commander in the Mahdi Army, said the fighting started because other Shiites were allowed to bring guns into the city while Sadr's followers were not.

"Some of us were carrying pistols, but not all of us," Jabiri said of his 31-person group. "They were authorized pistols from Sadr's office and we had IDs to carry them. They do not respect us just because we are from the Sadr bloc."

In apparent retaliation for the sense of mistreatment in Karbala, Sadr supporters set fire to a Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council office in the Baghdad neighborhood of Kadhimiyah.

Also Tuesday, the U.S. military announced that troops had killed 33 Sunni insurgents who were controlling the water supply in the town of Khalis, about 50 miles north of Baghdad. The military said the Sunnis had been withholding water from the city's Shiite residents.

According to a statement provided by the military, an airstrike killed 20 of the insurgents, while a simultaneous ground attack killed 13 others. No troops were injured or killed, a military spokesman said.

Ahmadinejad, in his comments Tuesday, pledged to respond, potentially with force, if the United States follows through with a plan to label a branch of the Iranian military as a terrorist group. The Bush administration has decided to designate the 125,000-member Revolutionary Guard Corps as a "specially designated global terrorist."

The United States has repeatedly accused Ahmadinejad's government of aiding Shiite militias in Iraq, a claim Iran denies. Despite tensions between the two countries, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker met with Iranian officials last month for the second time since May.

Special correspondents Saad Sarhan in Najaf and Naseer Nouri and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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