Violent run-up to elections

Shiite leaders blame the latest deadly bomb attacks on Sunni militants trying to ignite an Iraqi civil war.

Published December 20, 2004 3:28PM (EST)

Iraqi Shiite leaders appealed to their supporters to show restraint Sunday after two deadly blasts targeted their religious centers in an apparent attempt to trigger civil war. The attacks in the sacred Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala came just over an hour apart and left more than 60 people dead and more than 120 wounded.

In Najaf, a car bomb exploded in the central square, where a crowd had gathered for the funeral of a tribal sheik, about 100 meters from where the governor, Adnan al-Zurufi, and police chief, Ghalib al-Jazaari, were standing. Both men were unhurt, but 48 people were killed and 90 wounded. It was the deadliest single bombing in Iraq in five months. Jazaari said he believed that he and Zurufi were the intended targets.

The blast, about a quarter of a mile from the Imam Ali shrine, the holiest Shiite site in Iraq, demolished part of a two-story building and tore off the facades of surrounding shops and other premises in the square, exposing the rooms inside. Dozens of locals scrambled in the rubble, digging for survivors amid clouds of dust and smoke.

The explosion in Karbala, about 45 miles northwest of Najaf, destroyed about 10 minibuses and set five cars ablaze outside the main bus station, not far from the gold-domed Imam Hussein shrine, which was the target of another bomb last week that killed eight people. Firefighters tackled the flames as ambulances ferried burned and bleeding blast victims to hospital.

Shiite leaders accused fundamentalist Sunni militants, known as Salafists or Wahhabis, working in collaboration with remnants of the ousted Baathist regime, of trying to lure Shiites into responding with violence and thus disrupting the national elections due to be held on Jan. 30.

"They are trying to ignite a sectarian civil war and prevent elections from going ahead on time," one prominent Shiite cleric, Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum, told Reuters. "They have failed before and they will fail again. The Shia are committed not to respond with violence, which will only lead to violence."

Even the volatile Sadr movement, led by firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, cautioned against reprisals. "A civil war will be hell. The consensus is against revenge," said his political liaison officer, Ali al-Yassiri.

Haidar al-Ubadi, a senior official of Dawa, a Shiite party, said Karbala and Najaf had been targeted because of their religious symbolism and because the election was expected to go smoothly there. "The Wahhabis are being fed intelligence from the Baathists to carry out this slaughter," said Ubadi. "We will hand them victory if we respond in kind." However, he blamed the interim government for a lack of security.

Shiites, who form a majority of about 60 percent among Iraq's population, welcome the election as an opportunity to gain the upper hand after decades of suppression by the Sunni-dominated former Baathist regime. After much haggling, under the guidance of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq's most senior Shiite cleric, 23 parties have agreed on a list of 228 candidates who will participate in the election under the umbrella of the United Iraqi Alliance. Although the list includes some independent Sunnis, and members of other minority groups such as Yazidis and Turkmen, it is overwhelmingly Shiite. In northern Iraq, the main Kurdish parties are also planning to field a unified list of candidates.

This leaves the Sunni Arabs, who live mainly in the troubled area around Baghdad and who enjoyed a privileged position under Saddam Hussein, facing bleak prospects. The election is likely to leave them even more disaffected and marginalized. Saddam's lawyers said Sunday that the former dictator blamed the Americans for instigating an ethnic carve-up of Iraq and was calling on Iraqis to resist. "President Saddam Hussein urged the unity of his Iraqi people, regardless of their religious and ethnic creed, to confront U.S. plans to divide their country on sectarian grounds," said Ziad Khasawneh, a spokesman for Saddam's defense team.

By Brian Whitaker

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