03/02/2004, 00.00
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Attacks waged in Shiite mosques in Karbala and Baghdad

Baghdad (AsiaNews) – A coordinated string of explosions rocked the Islamic holy city of Karbala this morning. The city was overflowing with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims who came to celebrate Ashura. Not long afterward a separate series of explosions hit the most important Shiite mosque in Baghdad. 

It is still unknown exactly how many people died in the blasts, yet it is reported that 30 died in Karbala and another 20 or so in Baghdad, while hundreds were left wounded. 

This was the first time in decades that the Iraqi Shiite population freely celebrated Ashura, a forbidden holiday during the Saddam Hussein era.

Ashura marks the most solemn religious period for Shiites. The period recalls the time in which Hussein, the nephew of Mohammed, was assassinated and buried in Karbala. The religious holiday is also when hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Lebanon and other countries gather in Muslim sanctuaries in the city.  This year over 2 million faithful were expected to travel to Karbala.   

Last month American intelligence made public a letter written by a Jordanian militant who was planning a series of attacks against Shiites in order to trigger a war between Shiites and Sunnis.

Today in Karbala, located 80 km from the capital, 5 bombs exploded around 10:00 a.m. local time in the vicinity of 2 Shiite sanctuaries. Witnesses said that streets were filled with blood and dead bodes wrapped in linens and carried on wooden boards.

Later at least 4 explosions ripped through the Kadhimiya neighborhood of Baghdad, some inside a Shiite mosque and others in a nearby square which was filled with vendors at market time. Iranian pilgrims were some of the people killed in the attacks.

The explosions risked increasing tensions which already exist between Shiites and Sunnis. Shiites have had greater power in post-Hussein Iraq, following years of oppression under the former dictatorship which favored much more the Sunni population.

In the months after the fall of Hussein's authoritarian regime both communities have been blamed for various attacks on one another. In Aug. 2003, for example, an explosion rocked the holy city of Najaf, killing Ayatollah Al-Hakim; and in Oct. of the same year 2 attacks were waged against Sunni mosques in Baghdad.  

Various observers say they do not rule out that Al Qaeda or Iran has helped mastermind attacks to increase tensions between the two Muslim communities in addition to promoting conflict within the Shiite community itself, between fundamentalist followers of Muqtada al-Sadr and mainstream believers of Al Sistani.
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See also
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Islamist defeat in Provisional Governing Council
Anglican Church brings Sunnis and Shiites closer together
Signing of temporary constitution considered an "historic moment"
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