Attacks kill 19 in Iraq

By Michael Hastings
Friday, December 25, 2009

BAGHDAD -- Violence escalated in Iraq on Thursday in advance of the Shiite religious festival of Ashura, with five attacks killing at least 19 people and wounding more than 100, including a provincial council member and a high-ranking Iraqi military official.

Iraqi officials said al-Qaeda in Iraq was probably responsible for the string of attacks, which have totaled more than a dozen in the past 24 hours.

The Shiite festival, commemorating the death of Imam Hussein in A.D. 680, has been marred over the past six years by sectarian violence.

Discouraged under Saddam Hussein's rule, the festival has gained popularity under the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad, and 1.5 million pilgrims are expected to make the trip to Karbala, the site of one of Shiite Islam's holiest shrines.

The worst attack Thursday was in Hilla, about 60 miles south of Baghdad, where two bombs detonated outside the main bus terminal, killing 10 and wounding more than 100.

Maj. Muthana Ahmad of the Babel police force said the first bomb was planted inside a vegetable market near the bus terminal, and the second explosion was from a car bomb parked at the side of the bus terminal.

The explosion hit members of a Babel police bomb squad who were en route to the scene, killing Brig. Gen. Talib Khalil, head of the city's explosives ordnance disposal unit.

Naeem Jassem, a member of the Babel provincial council and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's State of Law party, also was killed at a nearby checkpoint in an accidental shooting in the aftermath of the explosion, according to a Hilla police official.

A bombing Thursday morning in a restaurant outside Karbala also killed one and wounded five, and an improvised bomb killed five and wounded at least 22 during an Ashura ceremony in Sadr City, Iraqi officials said.

Another makeshift-bomb attack on Shiite pilgrims Thursday evening in the town of Zafarynia, south of Baghdad, killed three and wounded eight.

Hastings is a special correspondent.

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