Suicide Bomber Kills 40 at Shiite Shrine in Baghdad

By Anthony Shadid
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 5, 2009

BAGHDAD, Jan. 4 -- A woman wearing an explosives belt packed with ball bearings blew herself up in Baghdad near one of Iraq's most sacred Shiite shrines, killing at least 40 people and wounding scores more in a devastating attack that shattered festive celebrations ahead of Shiite Islam's holiest day, Interior Ministry officials said.

The blast, just 20 yards from a door to the two gold-leafed domes of the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine, tore through a crowd of Iraqi and Iranian pilgrims waiting to enter a checkpoint, witnesses said. Women are usually searched less aggressively than men, allowing the assailant to thwart the stringent security ringing the shrine.

Residents described scenes of carnage after the woman detonated the explosives at 11:15 a.m. on a cool, sunny morning. Dismembered bodies were strewn across a muddy road and near a covered market, the blast's force hurling some parts onto the roofs of nearby two-story buildings. Volunteers gathered bloodied pieces of flesh in black plastic bags.

In the ensuing, chaotic minutes, witnesses said, some peopled vomited at the sight and smell of blood. Numb, survivors and the wounded cried religious invocations to Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, whose death will be marked Wednesday, on a day known as Ashura, the most sacred day on the Shiite calendar.

"They are enemies of God, and they are many," Bashir Hussein Ali, a 36-year-old Baghdad resident, said at the site. "This comes from the hatred in their hearts."

"They'll find any way to hurt us," said a friend, 27-year-old Murtada Aziz.

The Interior Ministry said 40 people were killed, 16 of them Iranian pilgrims, and 72 were wounded. The U.S. military put the toll at 36 killed and 36 wounded. Witnesses said the explosives were packed with ball bearings to kill as many people as possible.

Ashura culminates 10 days of mourning marking the death of Hussein and his band of outnumbered followers in a battle in A.D. 680 at what is now the city of Karbala. His killing solidified the division of the Muslim world into Shiites loyal to Hussein's family and orthodox Sunnis. The memory of Hussein's martyrdom and the emotions it evokes are comparable to sentiments in the Christian world that surround Christ's crucifixion.

"Each drop of blood that falls calls your name, Hussein," a banner at the scene read.

Pilgrims marking Ashura and other Shiite holidays in Iraq have long been targets of suicide bombings designed to ignite more sectarian tension. In 2004, during the first commemoration of Ashura after the fall of Saddam Hussein, suicide bombings killed more than 160 pilgrims in attacks in Karbala and at the same shrine attacked Sunday in Baghdad.

By most accounts, sectarian tension has declined in recent months. As a sign of that improved atmosphere, Iraqi officials, at the urging of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, had reopened the Bridge of the Imams on Nov. 11, rejoining Kadhimiyah, the neighborhood around the shrine, with the Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiyah, once an insurgent stronghold. The bridge had been closed since 2005, when a stampede, triggered by rumors of a suicide bomber, killed 800 Shiite pilgrims in one of the war's most horrific episodes.

Senior Interior Ministry officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said they had opposed the decision at the time, and on Sunday, they blamed the bridge's reopening for this attack and another one Dec. 27 that killed at least 22 people near a car garage.

"Intelligence shows that attacks are a consequence of opening the bridge," one senior official said. Although officials think both attackers used the bridge to enter the neighborhood, which is shrouded in security, the official said there were no plans to close it again.

At the scene, in a sign of the deep suspicion that still reigns, residents speculated on the assailant's identity -- al-Qaeda, Sunni insurgents, Iranians and Americans. Many said they were dumbfounded at how a suicide bomber could pass through roadblocks that ban traffic around the shrine and police checkpoints where everyone entering is searched.

"All the guards do is talk on their mobiles," said a resident, Abu Hussein Tamimi.

He shook his head, then turned back to his bookstore, still open in the aftermath.

Even on its worst days, Baghdad remains a city remarkable for its resilience. In two hours, volunteers had swept away the corpses and washed the street of blood. To the cadence of drums and horns, processions moved down other streets toward the shrine and its four minarets. Traditional laments played from scratchy speakers along the road.

Tea and water were served free to pilgrims. Along the road, huge steel vats of harisa, a stew served on religious holidays, were cooked over wood fires.

"We've grown accustomed to it," said Hussein Abu Ali, serving tea near the shrine. His cousin Dhiaa Hussein, 20, was one of the guards killed Sunday morning. "Explosions, blasts, shootings and rockets, we don't have any fear anymore."

He poured a cup of sugar into the kettle, then put it back on the flame.

"We welcome anything that comes from God," he said.

Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.

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