The death toll for Iraqi civilians and American forces rose Saturday as a car bomb ripped through crowds of worshipers in the Shiite shrine city of Karbala, killing at least 60 people, and U.S. military authorities reported the deaths of nine soldiers and Marines.
U.S. deaths have surged in April, contributing to a grim statistic: 343 U.S. troops have been killed this year, 53% more than the 224 killed during the first four months of last year, according to the website icasualties.org.
Details of the Karbala attack, the second in the city this month, were sketchy. The car bomb exploded at what apparently was the checkpoint closest to one of the holiest shrines in Shiite Islam. The streets around the shrine are constantly filled with pilgrims. Authorities said 170 people were injured.
In the chaos after the explosion, televised video showed a man running amid a crowd, holding an infant’s lifeless body. A mob incensed by the lack of security attacked a guesthouse near the Karbala governor’s residence, reportedly setting it on fire.
On April 14, a car bomb exploded in a bus station near the shrine, killing 47 people and wounding 224.
The attack comes in the third month of the U.S.-led security crackdown and amid an intensifying political struggle in Washington over the war. Last week, Congress passed a bill that would make additional funding for the war contingent on a timed withdrawal of troops. President Bush said he would veto the bill.
Most of the troops added since Feb. 13 have been sent to Baghdad. But the Karbala attack, apparently by a suicide bomber, shows the difficulty of stopping extremists willing to kill themselves.
Police had sealed off the shrine from traffic even before another revered Shiite shrine, the Golden Mosque of Samarra, was destroyed by bombers in February 2006.
The U.S. military said this month that civilian casualties had declined in Baghdad, the center of the troop buildup, since mid-February, but the overall number had climbed throughout Iraq.
The Americans reported killed in action included four soldiers who died Saturday in roadside bombings in the Baghdad area. Three soldiers and two Marines were killed Friday in combat operations in Al Anbar province.
The number of U.S. military personnel killed so far in April totals 99. Only five months have been more deadly for U.S. forces since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.
The increase in U.S. fatalities may be a reflection of the fact that there are more troops in harm’s way this year than last. As the number of uniformed personnel has increased, tactics have shifted to place more of them in urban population centers where the bulk of insurgents are believed to be based.
As part of the strategy being applied by commander Gen. David H. Petraeus, U.S. troops are going out on more patrols with Iraqi soldiers and police officers and in some cases living with them in the “joint security stations” established to give the Iraqis more intense on-the-job training.
Officers in the Army’s 1st Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, said last week in Ramadi that the strategy shift, along with an upsurge in Iraqi army and police recruitment, has been an important factor in the reduction of violence in the restive city, capital of Al Anbar province.
At the same time, however, insurgents have shifted their strategy and adopted new munitions. A new generation of bombs can penetrate even the armor of 70-ton Abrams tanks, once thought impregnable in street warfare.
Elsewhere in Iraq, residents of Saddam Hussein’s hometown quietly observed what would have been his 70th birthday Saturday with wreaths and banners.
The deposed president was executed Dec. 30 after being found guilty of crimes against humanity in connection with the 1982 massacre of 148 Shiite Muslims from the town of Dujayl after an assassination attempt on Hussein. He was interred in a marble-paneled religious hall in his birthplace Al Auja, near Tikrit. The remains of his sons Uday and Qusai, who were killed by U.S. troops in Mosul in 2003, were moved to an adjoining garden from a nearby cemetery two months ago.
A pro-Hussein parade filed through Tikrit on Saturday night, with hundreds of marchers chanting slogans and anthems and carrying pictures of the former president. Several masked men fired into the air while Tikrit police officers looked on.
Banners in the town proclaimed, “April 28, birthday of heroic leader Saddam Hussein” and “We salute the heroic and honorable resistance.”
Abu Marwan, a baker, reported a brisk business for cakes. Customer Akram Yasin said, “Today I celebrate two birthdays: my son’s 11th and also our president’s. Saddam was the symbol of all Iraqis.”
Elsewhere in Iraq, sectarian violence continued. Authorities said they recovered 17 bodies in and around Baghdad, and at least eight in several other cities. Four civilians were killed in a drive-by shooting in Baghdad’s Yarmouk neighborhood and three were killed by a roadside bombing in Zafaraniya, a suburb of the capital.
In Al Anbar, Marines called in an airstrike to destroy a truck bomb, the military said.
A Times researcher in Tikrit contributed to this report.