Baghdad: At least 118 Shiite pilgrims were slaughtered in attacks across Iraq on 6 March, sparking fears of reprisals that could frustrate efforts by Iraqi and US forces to quell sectarian violence.
The deadliest single attack was in Hilla, south of the capital, where two suicide bombers triggered explosives amid a packed crowd of worshippers walking to the holy city of Karbala, police Lieutenant Karim al-Hamzawi said.
Dr Mohammed Timini from Hilla Hospital’s emergency room said 90 pilgrims were killed and at least 160 wounded, as queues of ambulances and private cars brought in scores of bloodied bodies.
“Among the wounded, there are 50 in a critical condition. Eighty percent of the casualties are young men, but there are women and children among the dead,” he told AFP at the hospital.
Tens of thousands of Shiites are making their way to Karbala, a shrine city around 100 km south of Baghdad, for the Arbaeen ceremony on 9 March, despite threats from Sunni militants.
Most of them are going on foot, leaving them vulnerable to attack.
Arbaeen (40 in Arabic) marks 40 days after Ashura, the holiest day on the Shiite calendar, commemorating the killing in 680 of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid.
The Hilla bombings triggered fury amid the local Shiite population, and there was gunfire as militants accused government security forces of failing to protect the marchers from Sunni extremists.
Elsewhere in Iraq, separate attacks killed at least 28 more Shiites.
In Baghdad, eight pilgrims died when their minibus was raked with bullets by unknown gunmen in the Sunni district of Dura, while 15 more were killed and 47 wounded in three separate car bombings in other parts of the city.
Another five were gunned down in two attacks near Latifiyah, south of the capital. At least 15 more were wounded.
Joint operations by US and Iraqi forces, meanwhile, netted a group of senior Al-Qaeda linked insurgents, Iraqi interior ministry operations director Brigadier General Abdel Karim Khalaf said.
Success against Al-Qaeda’s Sunni militants came as security forces also put pressure on radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army militia, probing his eastern Baghdad stronghold and targeting supporters.
So far, Sadr’s men have stood aside during the three-week-old security operation, but the latest attacks risk provoking his Shiite militants into reprisals against Sunni targets.
Khalaf told AFP that 29 Al-Qaeda members had been rounded up since Sunday in northern Iraq, including two brothers of Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
Baghdadi heads the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq”, an umbrella body for Sunni insurgent groups run by Al-Qaeda, and -- along with Al-Qaeda kingpin Abu Ayyub al-Masri -- is one of Iraq’s most wanted men.
The fighting was not without cost, however.
Nine American soldiers from the same command were killed and four more wounded in a single day in two bomb attacks on their convoys, the US military said.
In one attack in Salaheddin province on 5 March, six soldiers from Task Force Lightning died and three more were wounded, a statement said. Three other Task Force Lightning troops were killed in Diyala province, also north of Baghdad.
The deaths brought to 3,179 the US military’s losses since the March 2003 invasion, according to an AFP tally based on Pentagon figures.
Smoke was still rising from the car-bombed ruins of Baghdad’s historic book market, even as US military chiefs insisted a security sweep through the capital is putting the bombers to flight.