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Tuesday, March 02, 2004

Horror in Iraq

Multiple attacks on crowded Shiite holy places - estimates as high as 145 dead

At least six separate attacks in Karbala - four or more in Baghdad

I don't usually follow happenings in Iraq too closely on this blog, but this is so striking . . .
Washington Post: BAGHDAD, March 2 -- Numerous explosions in and around Shiite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and Karbala killed scores of Iraqis Tuesday, turning a day of pilgrimage and worship for millions into one of the worst days of death since the war in Iraq began.

Authorities said there were too many bodies to count accurately and immediately. Estimates of the number of dead in both cities ranged from 40 to 100. Many more were wounded.

At least six separate attacks hit the holy city of Karbala alone. Witnesses there described suicide bombers hurling themselves into streets thick with pilgrims. Others said mortars were fired. Still others talked of grenades. The attackers hit shrines, hotels, the gates of the city and streets packed with pilgrims.

Heidar Awainat, a physician with the Ministry of Health, said that at the Abbas Shrine in Karbala, up to a thousand worshipers may have been badly burned by the explosions.

"They just took the flash," he said. "It was corpses and flesh, burnt flesh. This is a violation of the sanctity. It's a sacred time."

Ali Aziz, a senior surgeon at Hussein Hospital in Karbala, said he knew of 85 dead and 233 wounded there.

At a hospital in Baghdad, there were at least 23 corpses counted.

At least four attacks hit Baghdad. Witnesses there said some appeared timed for maximum fatalities, with one or more blasts hitting inside a shrine and secondary explosions catching people as they fled.

Witnesses described mayhem in the minutes after the blasts. Sadiq Ali Haqq, a day laborer, said hundreds of people were thrown on top of each other from the force of the explosions at one Baghdad shrine. He said everyone was screaming "Allah Akbar!," God is great, and women were screaming for their children.

Security had been stepped up in recent days in anticipation of an attack during Ashura, the anniversary of the death of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, Imam Hussein, who was killed in battle in the 7th century. Over the past few days Iraqi police have caught at least one would-be suicide bomber in Karbala with explosives under his clothes.

Officials from the military forces and the U.S.-led interim government have been concerned about acts of violence meant to start a sectarian war between the country's Shiite majority and Sunni minority. Saddam Hussein is Sunni and under his reign many Sunnis enjoyed privileges which were taken away after the war.

This was the first time in decades that Iraq's majority Shiite community had been able to freely observe the holy day. "We've been suffering for a very long time," said Satter Jabbar, a street photographer outside one of the shrines hit in Baghdad. "Suddenly we felt free. We could breathe"....

Hussein Ali Kamal, a Ministry of Interior security official, said there were three blasts at around 10:15 a.m. near the shrine. One was set off by a suicide bomber, he said, and two others appeared to come from explosives planted in the crowd.

Rasmi Abdullah, 30, a guard, said a first explosion blew up at the entrance where visitors leave their shoes. Another blew up a procession of men. Still another hit a procession of women.

It was a scene of utter devastation. Large pools of blood, fragments of body parts and pieces of clothing littered the area. One bomb was so powerful it blew off a huge wooden door at the shrine. Windows shattered blocks away...

Hisham Salman Abboud, one of the guards, said there was such a great surge of people trying to get into the shrine that the guards had stopped searching people. "In the rush of people, we could not stop everyone and search them. We were told not to search people. It was a very big mistake."
UPDATE: According to latest AP reports, the blasts in Iraq "coincided with a shooting attack on Shiite worshippers in Quetta, Pakistan that killed at least 29 people and wounded more than 150."

Oy, what was the religious holiday being celebrated? The Ashura festival "commemorates the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed," and its celebrants apparently look like this (prior to bombings):

An Iraqi Shi'ite man gashes the top of his head with a sword
as thousands Shi'ites celebrate the last day of the Ashura
religious festival in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, March 2, 2004.

An estimated two million Shi'ites from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and
as far away as Canada have descended on the holy city of
Kerbala to mark Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom
of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, who
was killed in battle more than 1,300 years ago.
REUTERS/Ammar Awad

See also Reuters: Sh'ites Shed Blood in Powerful Iraq Ceremony:
KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - In scenes of religious fervor, thousands of Shi'ite Muslims gashed the tops of their heads with swords Tuesday as they honored the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed.

Chanting "Haider," the battle name of Hussein's father, old men, young men and boys marched in groups under banners through the streets of the holy city of Kerbala before dawn, beating their heads and chests to show their grief.

Brandishing swords and long daggers aloft and chanting ever more insistently, they then chopped gashes into the tops of their heads and let the blood flow down their faces in a ritual echoing the suffering of Hussein, who was beheaded by enemies.

Many with a patch shaved into their hair allowed a swordsman to slash three gashes into their bare heads along the soft parts of their skull. Sometimes blood spurted out and the recipients winced, but most were unblinking as they were cut.

Wearing white smocks over black shirts and trousers, and sometimes with a white banner around their heads, they were quickly splattered and sometimes completely drenched in blood.

In the midst of the bleeding throngs, boys banged goatskin drums, clashed cymbals and blew horns to urge on the marchers in a ceremony banned for more than 30 years.

Some who bled profusely stumbled as they walked, and aides popped sugared biscuits into their mouths to try to sustain them. Others wore bandages on their heads to staunch the flow, but kept on parading nonetheless, staring intently ahead.

Once the blood was flowing, most men slapped the tops of their heads with the flat side of their swords, but others continued to chop into their bloodied heads in deep, audible slashes, and minders stepped in to try to hold them back.

Men carrying bottles of disinfectant and cotton wool swabs walked among the mourners, helping those bleeding heavily.

Women wailed and cried as the endlessly snaking procession passed, crying out "Haider! Haider!" and urging them on.
Charles at LGF found the most revolting photo of Ashura celebrations. Fun for the whole family.

And if that's not enough for you, Aaron's Rantblog has a ton of photos from last year. Ugh.

Meanwhile, Jews are in the month of Adar, "when joy is increased," and will soon celebrate Purim -- by dressing in costume, reading the scroll of Esther, feasting and rejoicing, drinking wine, sending gifts to friends and giving to the poor. Purim commemorates the metamorphosis of the Jews' apparent bad fortune, to good.
"The Jews had light and gladness, and joy, and honor" (Esther 8:16)
So may it always be.