Suicide bombers hit holy Iraqi cities, 62 dead
Suicide car bombers struck Iraq's two main Shi'ite holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala yesterday, killing at least 62 people and wounding nearly 130, in coordinated attacks six weeks before a historic election.
It was the highest bombing death toll in Iraq since July and by far the bloodiest attack since last month's US assault on the Sunni city of Falluja, which aimed to quell the insurgency.
Both bombs, which went off about two hours apart, exploded near crowded bus stations in an apparently coordinated attempt to cause as much bloodshed as possible among Shi'ites, a long-oppressed majority expected to dominate the January 30 vote.
Earlier in Baghdad, gunmen killed three Electoral Commission employees after hauling them from a car on a busy street.
The bomb blasts were not far from important shrines - the Imam Ali mosque in Najaf and Imam Hussein mosque in Kerbala.
The attacks appeared designed to provoke sectarian conflict with Saddam Hussein's long-dominant Sunni minority - officials have seen similar motives behind previous attacks in the cities.
Shi'ite leaders called on their people not to reply in kind.
In Najaf, the suicide bomber detonated his vehicle about 300 metres from the Imam Ali shrine, near crowds of people queuing for buses and taxis and not far from busy offices.
Medical officials said there were at least 48 dead and 90 wounded in the blast, which left stunned crowds waiting in freezing temperatures for ambulances. A thick column of smoke rose from the blast site as a rare drizzling rain fell.
Police imposed a curfew in Najaf's old city.
In Kerbala, where a suicide bomber struck about two hours earlier, the main hospital said 14 people were killed and 39 wounded. A hospital official said all appeared to be civilians with many women and children among them.
A Reuters cameraman said the ground around the bus station was littered with dead and wounded. Flames licked at burnt-out vehicles nearly an hour afterwards.
The explosion left a deep crater and blew out windows and shop fronts, showering the area with broken glass.
The Kerbala attack was the second in five days. On Wednesday, a bomb apparently targeting Shi'ite cleric Abdul Mehdi al-Kerbalai exploded as he was returning to his office after evening prayers at the Imam Hussein shrine.
Yesterday's bomb was just a few hundred yards away.
Twelve people were killed and 30 wounded in Wednesday's attack, including the cleric, who is regarded as close to Iraq's supreme Shi'ite authority, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Sistani, who lives in Najaf, has overseen the creation of a powerful Shi'ite coalition to stand in the election, a bloc of candidates widely expected to emerge victorious.
Many militant Sunnis, waging an insurgency against American occupation, fear domination by the Shi'ite majority who make up 60 per cent of the population but have never held power.
There have been concerns about attempts to aggravate religious divisions since March, when suicide bombers struck Baghdad and Kerbala during an annual Shi'ite mourning rite, killing more than 170 people, an act blamed on Sunni militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian allied to al Qaeda.
Shi'ite religious leaders say they will not be provoked by bombs and reject accusations by some secular opponents that they want to install an Iranian-style Shi'ite theocracy.
"They are trying to ignite a sectarian civil war and prevent elections from going ahead on time. They have failed before and they will fail again," said Mohammad Bahr al-Uloum, one of Iraq's most respected Shi'ite clerics.
"The Shi'ites are committed not to respond with violence, which will only lead to violence. We are determined on elections and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has made this clear."