Another heroic blow by the Iraqi resistance… against Shi’ite pilgrims. From the Los Angeles Times, Aug. 11 (links and annotation added):
NAJAF, Iraq — A suicide bomber struck Thursday at a checkpoint near a revered Shiite Muslim mosque here, killing 35 people and threatening to further agitate sectarian violence as U.S. and Iraqi troops intensified operations in Baghdad to rout militias and death squads.
The morning attack near the Imam Ali mosque came when a man detonated an explosives belt as police wrestled with him at a checkpoint in a market square. The blast, which injured 122, shook the stones in the old city. Glass sprayed from shop fronts, police fired into the air and pilgrims ripped their clothes and wailed in grief.
“I was pausing near the gate of Imam Ali and all of a sudden there was a huge explosion, and I fell to the ground and smoke and the smell of gunpowder covered the place,” said Aqeel Kharsan, who takes tourists’ photographs in the market square. “When I was crawling away, I saw blood and even human flesh on the ground. Everybody was screaming and shouting.”
The wounded were carried away in ambulances and wheelbarrows. Relatives searched for family members and vendors’ carts were shattered, their goods scattered across sidewalks. A woman and her 8-month-old child lay dead, along with at least four policemen and pilgrims from Iran. Shortages of doctors and blood hampered emergency efforts at a nearby hospital and the injured were diverted to other clinics, including a maternity ward.
A Sunni Muslim militant group, called the Soldiers of the Prophet’s Companions, claimed responsibility for the attack in an Internet posting. It warned Shiite death squads to stop killing unarmed Sunnis, “otherwise wait for such operations that will shake your regions like earthquakes.”
The 10th century Imam Ali mosque was not damaged by the blast, but the symbolism of an attack near one of the holiest of Shiite shrines sent another jolt through a nation that has slid into an undeclared civil war. The attack came nearly three years after one of Iraq’s most influential Shiite clerics, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, was killed here by a massive car bomb as he stepped out of the mosque.
The violence that immediately followed Hakim’s death foreshadowed the sectarian hostilities that have bedeviled Iraq since, surging in February when Sunni militants bombed an important Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra. July witnessed some of the worst retaliatory violence between Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias and death squads, with several suicide bombings, including an attack that killed 57 Shiite laborers in Najaf’s sister city of Kufa, and a pileup of bodies of Sunni Arab men in the Baghdad morgue.
The bloodshed has underscored how Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s fledgling army and police and intelligence services, often accused of corruption, have been unable to establish order. In an effort to take control of the capital, the U.S. military has sent the 172nd Stryker Brigade, an armored vehicle unit with nearly 4,000 troops, to work with Iraqi soldiers in targeting sectarian gangs, criminal syndicates and militias.
Maliki has said that calming Baghdad is key to securing the rest of the nation and is using the military sweeps to rebuild confidence in his government. One of the more complicated tasks U.S. and Iraqi forces face is disarming thousands of fighters controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. The cleric’s Al Mahdi militia holds sway over Sadr City, a poor Baghdad neighborhood of nearly 2 million people.
In southwest Baghdad on Thursday, about 5,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops cordoned off the Dora neighborhood. Soldiers searched hundreds of homes as part of a mission to make the community safe and to restart municipal services, such as garbage collection.
“Dora has been plagued by a rash of sectarian violence,” Col. Michael Beech, commander of the 4th Brigade of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, said at a news conference in the neighborhood. “We stabilize the area, clear and secure it and then hold it.”
Gunfire and explosions echoed across Baghdad, which reported more than 1,800 violent deaths in July. Eight Iraqi soldiers were killed and five wounded by two roadside bombs in the western part of the city. Three policemen were killed and three injured in a clash with insurgents in the Duwanim neighborhood. In the Jamia area, gunmen killed two construction workers.
Elsewhere, two policemen were killed and two injured when a roadside bomb exploded near their patrol in the northern city of Kirkuk. To the south, in Basra, the British military reported that one of its helicopters landed safely after being struck by gunfire. Five mortar rounds struck a British base outside Basra. No casualties were reported.
The suicide bomber in Najaf detonated his explosives at 10:30 a.m., in the busy square known as the Grand Market, about 10 yards from the outer gate to the mosque. The shrine holds the tomb of the prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. It is one of the most important sites in the Shiite faith, and since Hakim’s assassination, the city has been closely guarded by Shiite militiamen.
The attack coincided with anniversary of the death of Ali’s daughter, Zainab. Hundreds of pilgrims were visiting from Iran. [See Persian Journal, Aug. 10]
“I was inside my shop. I heard a booming sound similar to the sound of the first Najaf explosion,” said Ali Shimrti, a perfume seller. “Smoke shrouded the place and the perfume containers tumbled down.”
He said he went outside and saw the wounded scattered and that “people hurried with wheelbarrows to evacuate them.”
“This place is crowded — peddlers and pilgrims, women and children. A number of people that I know and my neighbors, who committed nothing, were slain today.”
We noted at the time of the bombing of Samarra’s Golden Mosque in February, how Shia’s sacred sites in Iraq have become political pawns. Other Shi’ite shrines have been repeatedly taregted since then.