7 Shiite Pilgrims Die in Crash in S. Iraq; Bus Hit Stationary British Military Vehicle

By Ernesto Londoño and Zaid Sabah
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 19, 2009

BAGHDAD, Feb. 18 -- Seven Shiite pilgrims were killed Tuesday night in the southern Iraqi city of Basra when their bus slammed into an armored British military vehicle, authorities said Wednesday.

Soldiers in the vehicle were conducting a "routine night patrol," and the vehicle was stationary when the bus slammed into it from behind, British military spokesman Lt. Col. David Utting said.

Officials did not say whether any of the soldiers in the military vehicle were injured.

Lt. Murtada Jawad Kalim, a police official in Basra, said the pilgrims were returning to Basra from Karbala, Iraq, which draws millions of devout Shiites this time of year. Kalim said British soldiers opened fire toward vehicles behind the bus shortly after the collision because they feared they were being ambushed. He said an unspecified number of civilians were injured by the gunfire.

Utting said he had no information about the reported shooting after the collision.

Dozens of pilgrims were attacked in recent days as they traveled to and from Karbala to commemorate the death of the prophet Muhammad's grandson Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.

Britain has stationed about 4,000 combat troops in the outskirts of Basra. They are expected to withdraw from Iraq by this summer.

Meanwhile, a Sunni politician was fatally shot Wednesday morning in his home in Baghdad, his colleagues said.

Samir Safwat, a lawyer and one of the main organizers for the Iraqi Islamic Party in Baghdad in the run-up to the Jan. 31 provincial election, was killed by men who burst into his house in the Zafaraniyah neighborhood, said Salim al-Juburi, a senior party official.

"He was always calling on people to do away with sectarianism," Juburi said. For that, "he paid the price."

Iraqis went to the polls Jan. 31 to elect local council members, the equivalent of state legislators in the United States, during a largely peaceful day. But five politicians were slain before the vote, and Safwat was at least the third to have been killed since.

In another political development, Iraqi lawmakers settled on two finalists to replace the former speaker of parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, who stepped down in late December.

Lawmakers have spent several weeks fighting over Mashhadani's replacement. They expected to hold a vote Thursday to pick between two Sunni lawmakers, Ayad al-Samarrae and Khalil Jaddou.

Mashhadani, a beleaguered and squabble-prone lawmaker, agreed to resign after a particularly heated session during which lawmakers debated the case of an Iraqi journalist who slung two shoes at then-President George W. Bush during a news conference in Baghdad in December.

The journalist, Muntadar al-Zaidi, who became a sensation in the Arab world, is scheduled to stand trial Thursday.

Dozens of supporters, including relatives, held demonstrations in Baghdad on Wednesday demanding his release.

Special correspondents Aahad Ali in Basra and K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company