'Suicidal, spectacular and symbolic'
While American and Iraqi officials fear the Tuesday Ashura attacks on Shias in Baghdad and Karbala will inflame sectarian violence, Shia hostility targets neither Sunnis nor Kurds, but rather Americans, writes Ramsey Al-Rikabi in Baghdad
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Mourners, on Wednesday, carrying the flag-drapped coffin of one of the victims of the Kadhemiya bombings which claimed 70 dead and 200 injured last Tuesday
Scores of people were killed and hundreds wounded Tuesday by near- simultaneous attacks in Baghdad and Karbala during the Shia holy day of Ashura. Explosions tore through crowds of pilgrims gathered in both cities to commemorate the holiest Shia day of the year. Coalition authorities were quick to attribute the attacks to foreign terrorists, while many Iraqis blame the lack of security on the Americans.
Nearly one million pilgrims had flocked to the Shia holy city of Karbala for Ashura, a day honouring the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Mohamed. Thousands had also gathered in the Kadhemiya district of Baghdad, site of the holiest Shia shrine in the capital, the mosque of Imam Moussa Al-Kadhem, an intricately blue and gold inlaid mosque towered over by four golden minarets.
Tuesday was the culmination of the 10-day commemoration and Shia pilgrims flowed into Kadhemiya throughout the morning. Groups of Shia paraded through the streets, some flailing their backs with chain, others hitting their heads with swords to draw blood and some beating their chests, all in time to drums, chanting and poetry praising Imam Hussein and recounting his death. Some were dressed as Hussein and members of his family killed at his side in the seventh century battle marked by Ashura. Many of the participants were children, and scores of spectators -- men, women and children -- lined the streets. The mood was sombre, yet positive as the Shia had been banned for decades under Saddam from celebrating this holy day openly.
"We used to do this in basements or farmhouses; we had to do it in secret because whoever was caught was killed by Saddam's men," said Ali Nussrawi, a Shia from Baghdad distributing food from a Bedouin-style tent set up for Ashura. The black tents, where food and water are given out to the public, are meant to be replicas of the ones used by Hussein while he camped outside Karbala before his death. Nussrawi's tent, like many in Kadhemiya, was decorated with black, red and green flags emblazoned with the names of Shia martyrs. "You cannot imagine how good this feels," Nussrawi said. Many participants had only heard about Ashura from elderly relatives.
Iraqi police were a rarity in the Kadhemiya district Tuesday morning, stationing themselves away from the main mosque. Kalashnikov- toting local Shia along with members of the Badr Brigade and Mahdi Army, both Shia militias, undertook security near the shrine.
"The police couldn't handle security because there are too few of them," said Abu Amr, a Badr Brigade security guard. "And the US couldn't do it because they don't understand Muslims. Too much of a chance for misunderstandings." American Apache and Black helicopters circled overhead.
Abu Amr said there had been no serious problems so far and that he was not too worried about security. Less than an hour later, around 10am, three bombs ripped through the crowds gathered around the mosque.
"One bomber blew himself up in front of the mosque, a few seconds later another one went off nearby. Then a third one blew up inside the mosque itself," recalled Hadi Abdel Hassen, a security guard who witnessed the attack. He said he heard at least one more explosion. "The streets were littered with body parts," Abdel- Hassan said. Revised figures put the number of killed in the blasts in Baghdad at 70 people and almost 200 wounded. More than 140 people were killed and over 400 wounded in both Karbala and Baghdad in one of Iraq's deadliest days since the war.
By midday, friends and family members of victims had swamped the main hospital in Kadhemiya. The crowd outside the gate clambering to get in momentarily hushed when a young man, covering his face with his hands, stumbled out, wailing and screaming. Security guards at the hospital's main entrance fought to keep the crowds back. Someone inside began posting in the window the names and ages of the injured and dead.
At the Baghdad central morgue, an employee said they had received about 20 bodies, almost none of which had been identified. Burned and mangled corpses with clothes ripped and skin burned off lined the floor. The body of a young girl lay at the end of the row. An exact death toll has been difficult given the number of recovered body parts, including limbs and heads. "How can I identify this?" asked a morgue attendant holding up a leg with a white tennis shoe still on it.
At the Italian Red Cross hospital in central Baghdad, Haider Al-Kabi lay on a gurney, the skin on his right arms burned off and shrapnel wounds on his left side and legs. Al-Kabi's wife and two children were still missing, said his brother, Ali.
Shortly following the explosions, Shias took back to the streets to continue the ceremonial mourning. Outside the Kadhemiya hospital, groups of men marched around the entrance chanting "our sorrows for Kadhem" and beating their chests. "These people have no fear of God or understanding of Islam," said Jassem Murawi, a goldsmith who came to the hospital to donate blood, referring to the suicide bombers.
US Chief Administrator in Iraq L Paul Bremer condemned the attacks, saying in a statement that, "the terrorists want sectarian violence because they believe that is the only way they can stop Iraq's march towards the democracy that the terrorists fear." Interim Governing Council (IGC) member Adnan Pachachi said he was "absolutely shocked" by the attacks, calling them "a bastardly crime with no justification". US officials said the strategy and timing for the handover of sovereignty would not be affected by the recent violence. Iraqi leaders called for three days of mourning out of respect for the dead.
Coalition authorities were quick to pin the attacks on Jordanian terrorist Abu Masab Al- Zarqawi. US officials claim Al-Zarqawi is Al- Qa'eda associate trying to insight religious and sectarian violence in Iraq in the hope of destabilising the country. The Americans intercepted a letter in January, reportedly penned by Al-Zarqawi, requesting assistance from Al- Qa'eda leaders in pitting Iraq's various groups against each other to spark a civil war.
Gen Kimmet, the US Army spokesman, said Al-Zarqawi is the chief suspect behind the attacks because of the methods and techniques -- "suicidal, spectacular and symbolic", as he described them -- point to the participation of transnational organisations. Although the Al- Zarqawi letter claims responsibility for 25 attacks in the past year inside Baghdad, Kimmet admitted that US authorities have never directly linked him to any specific attack. IGC members were also swift to finger Al- Zarqawi as the attacks' mastermind. The near simultaneous attack in Karbala, as well as a similar attack on Shias in Quetta, Pakistan that left 40 people dead, lends some credence to the American theory that the attacks were carried about by well- connected terrorist organisations with global reach.
But many Iraqis blame the Americans, least of all for not providing adequate security in the country. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq's leading Shia cleric, criticised the US after the attacks for not securing the borders and maintaining security, as well as inadequately training and equipping the new Iraqi security forces. Gen Kimmet said that American and Iraqi forces had coordinated on security issues for the Ashura holy day, and that "all parties involved thought there was sufficient security." Kimmet did say, however, that security arrangements were "a bit different" with the Shia security forces closest to the shrines, who were essentially on the front lines, and said US investigators were not combing the area of the attack in Baghdad for forensic evidence out of "respect for cultural requirements" because the bombers blew themselves up in a mosque. It is general procedure for American forces not to enter mosques unless asked or in an unavoidable hostile situation, Kimmet said.
But security lapses were the mildest accusations coming from Shias after the bombings. Some believe the US is letting terrorist organisations carry out the attacks to cause instability to extend the occupation, while others claim American forces are directly involved. "I suspect the Americans are behind the attacks, or at least they knew it was going to happen," said Abu Omar, the mosque guard. "This is all to the benefit of the Americans." Many people on the street were quick to vent their grief and anger. According to witnesses, the crowds in Kadhemiya began throwing stones and shoes at American medical crews who arrived on the scene.
"The terrorists are acting on the order of the Americans so they can stay longer," said Murawi, the goldsmith. US officials insist, however, that they have no intention to stay in Iraq any longer than necessary and that the majority of Iraqis want them there. Adnan Pachachi dismissed claims of American involvement as "nonsense", asking, "what possible motive would the Americans have for such an attack?"
The prevalence of unbelievable conspiracy theories among the Shia populace highlight how poor the relationship between the US and Iraq's largest ethnic group has become. While American and top Iraqi officials fear the attacks will inflame sectarian violence, most Shias are not expressing hostility towards Sunnis or Kurds. Rather, the Americans are the target of their anger, bringing into sharp contrast the difference between how the Coalition Provisional Authority presents itself as a partner with the Iraqis and the complete lack of trust among the majority of the population towards the Americans.