In Iraq, Karbala bombings spark fears of renewed sectarian violence

At least 40 people were killed today in Karbala, where thousands of pilgrims have gathered to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in AD 680. His death marked the beginning of the Sunni-Shiite split in Islam.

By , Correspondent

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    People gather at the site of a twin car bombing in the holy city of Karbala, Iraq, on Friday.
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Two car bombs killed up to 40 people and wounded at least 140 more during the culmination of the Shiite pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala Friday, making this year’s commemoration the bloodiest since Saddam was toppled.

At least 100 people have now been killed in attacks this week aimed at the millions of Shiites who have headed to Karbala to mark Arbaeen – the commemoration of the 40th day of mourning for the killing of Imam Hussein in battle in AD 680.

There were conflicting reports about the number and the nature of the explosions but Ministry of Interior officials said two car bombs detonated after they were parked on a bridge on the outskirts of the city.

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Fears of renewed sectarian violence

The bombings play to the worst fears of Iraqi and US officials that attacks could re-ignite the kind of sectarian violence that plunged this country into civil war three years ago. They sparked anger even among security officers.

“This is gross negligence on the part of the security planners,” said police captain Nibras Mohammad Ali, reached by phone in a hospital in Karbala filled with the wounded. He said a single car bomb exploded after the driver parked near a tent providing food and rest to the pilgrims and walked away. Many of the 130 were so seriously injured the death toll was expected to rise.

“There have been explosions in this area before during the pilgrimage.… I think this is a shameful failure in the security plan,” said an angry Captain Ali. “The atmosphere now in Karbala is very tense among security personnel and among the citizens.”

The attacks this week killing more than 90 pilgrims were launched against a backdrop of political turmoil over March parliamentary elections. Election officials on Thursday said they were delaying the legal start of campaigning to allow time to try to defuse a crisis over who will be allowed to run.

More than a million pilgrims at a time have converged on the shrine 70 miles south of Baghdad, many of them after walking for days. Karbala officials say more than 10 million of the faithful, hundreds of thousands from other countries, have made the pilgrimage this year.

On Wednesday a bomb on a cart attached to a motorcycle killed at least 20 people on their way to the holy city. In the worst attack, more than 40 died and 100 more were injured when a female suicide bomber detonated an explosive belt as she was being searched near a tent offering food and rest for the pilgrims.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi security forces, backed by US troops, have been deployed to help protect the tens of thousands of pilgrims walking along highways in and out of the city. The sheer numbers of pilgrims in and around the tightly packed city far exceeds security forces’ ability to protect them.

Why Karbala is so symbolic for Shiites

The mass pilgrimage was banned during Saddam Hussein’s regime. The battle of Karbala it it commemorates with its themes of betrayal and injustice is an essential part of Shiite identity and the commemoration a manifestation of political power.

The death of Imam Hussein, considered by Shiites as the heir to the rightful successor to the Prophet Mohammad, marked the beginning of the split between the Shiite and Sunni branches of Islam.

Officials are watching closely for signs that the attacks on the Shiite pilgrims could spark retaliatory attacks on Sunni targets, potentially reigniting the cycle of sectarian violence that plunged the country into civil war two years ago.

Bigger attacks ahead of March elections

Daily violence in Iraq has dropped dramatically in the past year but a series of high-profile bombings since August has hit government targets in an expected ramping up of attacks ahead of elections in March.

The March 7 elections have been thrown into turmoil by a government-appointed commission’s controversial decision to ban more than 500 candidates from running for alleged Baathist ties and a subsequent court ruling that the ban was illegal.

The Justice and Accountability commission is headed by two politicians who themselves are running for office, including Ahmed Chalabi. Chalabi was a leader of the US-funded Iraqi opposition blamed for providing faulty intelligence about weapons of mass destruction that was a driving force behind the war in Iraq. Some Sunni politicians threatened to organize a boycott of the elections if the ban stood.

An appeals court this week overturned the commission’s ruling, saying the candidates would be allowed to run but could be investigated after the election and barred from taking their seats if they were found to have ties to the banned party.

The court ruling was welcomed by the White House and denounced by the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, which has called a closed emergency session of parliament Sunday to discuss whether the court has exceeded its authority. Election officials have asked to take the issue to the Supreme Court and announced a delay in the start of campaigning on Monday for another five days.

The elections, already more than a month later than expected, are unlikely to be delayed further unless the crisis significantly worsens but the issue has widened the rift between Sunni political blocs and Iraq’s Shiite-led government. Sunnis largely boycotted the first parliamentary elections in 2005 and bringing them into the political process is seen as key to the country’s stability.

With additional reporting from Sahar Issa.

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