Iraq's leaders rallied to stamp out the specter of civil war Tuesday after simultaneous attacks against two Shiite shrines killed at least 140 worshippers and wounded hundreds more as they marked the holy day of Ashoura unhindered for the first time in more than two decades.
Declaring three days of mourning, Iraq's interim Governing Council condemned the attacks, blaming "terrorists and evildoers," and insisted that it would not shatter the country's unity.
Many Shiites, reeling from the bloodiest day in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled from power, were swift to pin blame on the US and "outsiders."
Indeed, the US-led coalition said the attacks bore the hallmarks of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Islamic militant suspected of ties to Al Qaeda who has been accused of orchestrating most of the suicide bombings that have beset Iraq in recent weeks.
The attacks fit an insurgent pattern of targeting civilians and security forces in a bid to foment civil strife. But while the potential for violence on Ashoura was widely recognized, the violence dealt a further blow to efforts to restore stability to a country that is becoming increasingly divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The devastating blasts came as millions of Shiite pilgrims from the Arab and Islamic world converged on the this dusty southern city to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein at the battle of Karbala 1,400 years ago, itself a story resonant in blood, sacrifice, and martyrdom.
Shortly after 10 a.m., as thousands of pilgrims marched along the dusty highway on the eastern edge of the city toward the shrines, 10 mortar blasts reverberated across the countryside. Several rounds exploded in the city center, at least one beside the golden-domed shrine of Imam Hussein. Shrapnel tore through the throng of pilgrims standing beside the northern entrance to the shrine, as hundreds fled the scene in panic during the seven-minute bombardment. A US military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmet, said that one explosion was caused by a suicide bomber.
The bodies of pilgrims, including women and children, lay strewn on the ground as the wounded were ferried away from the shrine on wooden carts.
The city center was closed to traffic and it took some time before ambulances could reach the scene. Furious gun-wielding militiamen cordoned off the site. Others hosed down the blood-soaked street.
Dazed onlookers stood to one side as trucks and vans raced through the streets calling for blood donors. Dozens of anxious relatives gathered at the entrance to the nearby Hussein Hospital, calling out for news of their loved ones. One teenager emerged through the hospital gate, his trousers shredded and bloodstained. "I was picking up my cousin when the explosion happened," he said in a trembling voice. "My brother was also hurt."
Fearful of further bomb attacks, militiamen stopped and searched passers-by and vehicles.
On the edge of the city where the enormity of the attacks had yet to filter through, Shiites rhythmically beat themselves with chain flails in time to a goatskin drum, a traditional ritual of mourning for Imam Hussein. Others recited verses from the Koran. Saddam Hussein banned Shiites from commemorating Ashoura, fearful that the powerful sentiments evoked by the festival could be mobilized against his regime.
Closer to the shrines, angry Shiites blamed the US and Israel for the attack. Some also accused fellow Shiites from Iran. One Iranian pilgrim was reportedly badly beaten by the crowd. Yet many Iranians were among the victims. Busloads of Iranians have arrived here in the past few days for the Ashoura commemoration. Local police said two men had been arrested in connection with the attacks.
"Whoever did this hates Iraq and the Iraqi people," says Qadom Ghazali. Blaming the US, Mr. Ghazali insists that he bears no ill will toward Iraq's Sunni Muslims: "The Sunnis and the Shiites are all one people and our goal is to unite Iraq."
At the same time as the blasts shook Karbala, three suicide bombers blew themselves up beside the Shiite Khadimiyeh Mosque in a northern suburb of Baghdad, killing more than 75 people. A fourth suicide bomber whose explosives failed to detonate was arrested, according to Iraqi police. US troops who arrived on the scene were stoned by angry Shiites.
The apparently coordinated attacks were the deadliest against Shiites since August, when 85 people, including Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim, were killed by a car bomb in the holy city of Najaf.
More than 300 people were killed in a series of suicide-bomb attacks as well as routine anticoalition operations in February, making it the bloodiest month since Hussein's ouster. That grim statistic may be matched or overtaken this month in the wake of Tuesday's blasts.
In a bid to allay fears of violence spinning out of control, Shiite, Sunni, and Kurdish representatives on the Governing Council put on a united front.
"We accuse the terrorists and evildoers who obviously are aiming at disrupting the unity of Iraq and trying to destabilize the country through sectarian strife," said Adnan Pachachi, a Sunni independent on the Council. "This will not deter us from continuing our efforts to stay and work together and ... to build a new Iraq in which all people shall participate to build a future of happiness and prosperity."
The US military said last month that it had seized a letter purportedly written by Mr. Zarqawi calling on Al Qaeda's assistance to stage attacks against Iraqi Shiites in an attempt to ignite a civil war.
"The civil war and sectarian strife that Zarqawi wants to inflict on the people of Iraq will not succeed. Zarqawi failed, his gang and their evil plans have failed," said Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, a senior Shiite member on the council.
The question now is whether the carnage will bolster national unity against attempts to provoke civil war or whether it will merely deepen the distrust between Iraq's Shiite and Sunni communities.