Faction-fighting among the Iraqi Shiite majority, which has been most obvious recently in the South around Basra, has come to the holy city of Kerbala.
More than 1 million pilgrims were ordered to leave the Shiite holy city of Karbala on Tuesday and police imposed a curfew after two days of violence — including raging gunbattles between rival militias — claimed at least 35 lives during a religious festival.The feud between the nationalist (but supposedly Iran-backed) Sadrists and the pro-occupation (and definitely Iran-backed) SCIRI has been building up a head of steam for a while now but I am guessing this will mean the end to any pretense of Shiite unity. I wonder what, if anything, Grand Ayatollah Sistani will say. Whatever, this is definitely not Surgingly good news.
Nearly 200 people were wounded, security officials said, and the government sent reinforcements from Baghdad to quell growing unrest and help clear the city.
Security officials told The Associated Press that Mahdi Army gunmen, loyalists of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, attacked guards around the two Karbala shrines that were under the protection of the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
In telephone calls to reporters in Karbala, gunfire and exploding mortar shells could be heard.
The security officials, who demanded anonymity for security reasons, said at least 180 people have been wounded. They include women and children.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said "entrances and exits to Karbala have been secured and more forces are on the way from other provinces," including Baghdad. The other officials said buses had been dispatched to Karbala to take pilgrims out of the city.
Gunshots rang out Tuesday in the area near the Shiite shrines which are the focal point of celebrations marking the birthday of the 12th and last Shiite imam, who disappeared in the 9th century. The festival was to have reached its high point Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.
Thirty of the dead were killed in Tuesday's fighting, five others died in an outbreak of violence Monday night pilgrims tried to push past frustratingly slow security checkpoints near the Imam al-Hussein mosque.
He called the gunmen who fought police "criminals," adding that the curfew was imposed because of fears for the pilgrims.
A member of the city council said the center of town was in chaos with pilgrims running in all directions to escape the gunfire. No one, he said, was sure who was doing the shooting. He said a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near the shrine.
"We don't know what's going on," said the councilman, who would not allow use of his name for security reasons. "All we know is the huge numbers of pilgrims was too much for the checkpoints to handle and now there is shooting."
AP Television News pictures from the city, 50 miles south of Baghdad, of the Monday night melee showed pilgrims running helter-skelter as gunfire, apparently police shooting into the air, rang out in the streets near the mosque.