Terror on Muharram day

Published : Mar 26, 2004 00:00 IST

In Karbala, soon after the explosion, burning bodies and wailing survivors. - BRENNAN LINSLEY/AP

In Karbala, soon after the explosion, burning bodies and wailing survivors. - BRENNAN LINSLEY/AP

The Muharram day bomb attacks in Iraq, which seem to have been carried out with the intention of sparking a Shia-Sunni war, have only deepened the Iraqi resentment against U.S. occupation.

IN the wake of the serial blasts that rocked Baghdad and the holy city of Karbala, where hundreds of thousands of Shia worshippers were observing the Ashura ceremony, people and politicians in Iraq and elsewhere are preparing to face the unpredictable. Varying figures have been put out on the toll. According to Khudier Abbass, the Health Minister in the United States-appointed Iraqi Governing Council, 185 people were killed in the attacks, which took place almost simultaneously. Officials said that 115 people had been killed in Karbala, while 70 had died in Baghdad.

According to U.S. military officials, three suicide bombers attacked Baghdad's Kadhimiya mosque. Ahmed al-Haelali, the man in charge of investigating the bombings, said that as many as nine suicide bombers may have been involved in the attack in Karbala. At least 22 Iranian pilgrims are believed to have been killed in Karbala and an estimated 100 persons have been injured.

A sea of Shia worshippers were marching through the streets of Karbala, chanting and flagellating themselves, when the multiple explosions occurred. The crowds were particularly heavy as for the first time in three decades Iraqi Shias were allowed to perform the Ashura ceremony. After the explosions, bodies lay scattered on bloodstained streets, many of them burning, as panic-stricken pilgrims were fleeing the scene. Many of the injured were transported on wooden carts to ambulances. Others were taken to a medical facility set up by Iranians. Mosques in Karbala abruptly ended the recitation of Koranic verses, and began calling for blood to be donated.

Equally horrific scenes could be seen outside Baghdad's Kadhimiya mosque. Shock and grief soon gave way to anger, and as vehicles carrying American troops approached the mosque, they were stoned and forced to retreat. Although emotions ran high, Iraqis, especially Shia spiritual leaders, were quick to see that the purpose of the attacks was to provoke sectarian tensions. Iraq has a majority Shia population, but over 30 per cent of the people are Sunnis. Any blood-letting involving Shias and Sunnis would, in all likelihood, spiral out of control. Given the fact that Iraq is awash with weapons, sectarian clashes can easily turn into a civil war. Northern Iraq also has a large Kurdish population, but ethnic composition in the area is mixed. The regime of Saddam Hussein had settled a large number of Sunni Arabs in the north of the country, and tensions between them and the Kurds run fairly high. Besides, there is a minority Turkoman population that has an uneasy relationship with the Kurds. An Iraqi civil war would, therefore, have unpredictable consequences and would pose a threat to the existence of the Iraqi state. Soon after the blasts, clerics in Baghdad announced that "foreigners" were responsible for the attack.

As in the past when suicide bombings in Iraq have caused large casualties, the people on the scene spontaneously blamed the Americans. In the streets of Baghdad, many believe that the U.S. has a "hidden agenda" - to foment a civil war in the country and that the Israelis are their co-conspirators. Not surprisingly, soon after the attack, a loudspeaker outside the Kadhimiya mosque blared: "This is the work of Jews and American occupation forces." Stressing that the Sunnis and the Shias were united, Thaer al-Shimri, a member of the Shia Al-Dawa, said shortly after the attacks: "Today war has been launched on Islam." Analysts point out that the Shias are particularly strong advocates of preserving Iraqi unity as they sense that, given their majority status, they stand a good chance of emerging as the country's new rulers once elections are held.

Following the explosions, Iraq's top spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, called for unity among Sunnis and Shias in order to combat attempts to destabilise Iraq. But the Ayatollah, who has been a fierce advocate of an early transfer of power to Iraqis, also used strong language to criticise the Americans for their inept administration of Iraq. "We put on the occupation forces responsibility 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," he said in a statement.

The bomb attacks on Shias have had an impact on the entire region as the strikes were perceived as an attempt to provoke sectarian tensions. Most countries in West Asia have mixed populations of Sunnis and Shias and any deterioration in the relationship between the two communities can lead to destabilisation.

Shias are in a clear majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain and they constitute an estimated 10 per cent of Saudi Arabia's population of 24 million, and reside in the country's oil rich eastern province. Shias are also highly influential in Lebanon and Syria; the community is well networked and is enormously influenced by seminaries in Najaf in Iraq and Qoom in Iran.

Iran, which also wants to see the Americans leaving neighbouring Iraq at the earliest, was quick to blame Washington for the deteriorating security situation. President Mohammad Khatami was quoted as saying: "It is clear today that not only has the occupation of Iraq not brought stability and security but, on the contrary, it has deprived the country of security and caused much damage." He said that "devilish hands which refuse to accept a stable and secure Iraq" were behind the attacks. In Bahrain, the attacks sent shock waves through the Shia community, and a leading Shia organisation urged Iraqis to show "maximum restraint to preserve unity".

The Islamic National Wefaq Society described the attacks in Baghdad and Karbala as " a naked attempt aimed to stir a sectarian sedition" between Shias and Sunnis. A prominent Sunni cleric in Saudi Arabia, Shiekh Salman Al Odah, urged people to dissuade "enemies" who were trying to stir up a "sectarian war" that would pit Sunnis against Shias. "It is in the interest of both Sunnis and Shias to agree to put out this fire and not to react to such provocations," he said.

With Iraqis and many in Iraq's neighbourhood holding it responsible for the bombings, the U.S. has launched a focussed and elaborate campaign that accuses the Al Qaeda network of carrying out the attacks. The campaign has two obvious objectives: First, it deflects attention from the U.S., which in the Iraqi public eye is responsible for the blasts. Second, it reinforces the American position that it has been engaged in battling international terrorism in Iraq. Not surprisingly, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, a top U.S. commander in Iraq, blamed Abul Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian believed to be linked to Al Qaeda, as the "prime suspect" in the blasts. American officials have said that Zarqawi was planning to carry out spectacular attacks on Shias in order to trigger a Sunni-Shia civil war. In February, U.S. officials released what they claimed was a letter from Zarqawi which outlined a strategy of attacks on Shias.

Representatives of the pro-U.S. Iraqi Governing Council echoed Gen. Kimmitt's views before the media. "This is a message from Zarqawi to the Iraqi people," Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, a member of the Council, was quoted as saying. "We will not react in a sectarian way and his (Zarqawi's) intention of fomenting civil war in this country will not be successful." The Council in a statement condemned the "evil and terrorism that targets Iraqi unity and seeks to inflame divisions among the people."

A day after the attack, the Al Qaeda denied all the charges and accused the U.S. of masterminding the strikes. A London-based Arabic newspaper, Al-Quds al-Arabi, received a letter to this effect from the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigade which is supposedly linked to the Al Qaeda.

The letter said: "Today a great misfortune has happened and is part of the U.S. conspiracy to ignite the fire of sedition between the Muslims in Iraq. The U.S. forces today perpetrated a massacre to kill the innocent Shias in their polytheist city of Karbala and in Baghdad." It said that "the Americans are trying to attribute these actions to the mujahideen of the Al Qaeda, who have inflicted pain and suffering on the United States in Iraq and elsewhere. The United States wants to distort the image of the mujahideen. And we are today telling all Muslims that we disassociate ourselves from this action."

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