Iraq sees its bloodiest day

Tuesday was the bloodiest single day seen in Iraq since Saddam Hussein’s fall and leaders of the country’s Shi’ite majority said the attacks were designed to ignite civil war.

Three days of national mourning have been ordered – some 112 people were killed in Karbala and another 70 in the capital.

The attacks came at the climax of a holy festival which was being marked for the first time in years.

US and Iraqi leaders blamed the carnage on a man accused of links to Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network, but the top Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, criticised the US for failing to secure the country’s borders from foreign attackers.

In a statement, he said: “We put responsibility on the occupation forces for the noticeable procrastination in controlling the borders of Iraq and preventing infiltrators, and not strengthening Iraqi national forces and supplying them with the necessary equipment to do their jobs.”

The US military said three suicide bombers killed dozens of people in Baghdad around the Kadhimiya mosque, and a suicide bomber, mortars and concealed bombs combined to kill scores in Karbala, a Shi’ite holy city 110km to the south.

More than 400 people were wounded in the two cities.

The near-simultaneous attacks ripped through an annual ritual, banned under the Sunni Saddam, during which Shi’ites beat their heads and chests and cut their heads with swords to honour a revered figure killed in battle 1,324 years ago.

Several Iraqi Governing Council members blamed the blasts on Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian whom Washington suspects of being behind a series of major attacks in Iraq.

US forces have placed a $A12.99 million bounty on his head.

They said last month they had intercepted a computer disc with a letter from Zarqawi urging suicide bomb attacks on Shi’ites to inflame sectarian tension in Iraq.

Shi’ites on the Governing Council urged calm and unity among all of Iraq’s myriad religious and ethnic groups.

“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 Shi’ite Governing Council member.

Iraq’s US governor Paul Bremer said in a statement: “The terrorists want sectarian violence because they believe that is the only way they can stop Iraq’s march toward the democracy that the terrorists fear.”

Violence had been feared but US and other coalition soldiers had left the immediate areas around the mosques to Iraqi security forces so as not to offend religious sensibilities.

In both cities, shock soon turned to anger and foreign civilians and soldiers were targeted.

But later, in active defiance of the attacks, pilgrims continued the last day of the Ashura rituals.

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