Shiite militias attacked each other in Karbala on Tuesday, killing more than 50 people in gunfights, setting fire to three hotels and forcing authorities to scuttle a religious festival by ordering a million celebrants to leave the holy city where they had gathered.
More than 200 people were injured in the panic that ensued when Mahdi Army members loyal to anti-American cleric Muqtada Sadr battled the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
The death toll was expected to climb, with witnesses reporting dozens of bodies still slumped on the streets surrounding the Imam Hussein shrine and amid the smoldering rubble of the three nearby buildings set ablaze during the rampage.
The two Shiite militias have been waging an increasingly deadly battle for control of southern Iraq’s most important cities and its abundant oil resources. The southern city of Basra, the wealthiest oil venue in Iraq, is about to be handed over to Iraqi forces by British troops, and the impending move has accelerated clashes between the Mahdi and Badr militias as they jockey for power in the region in the absence of any functional central government.
The latest confrontation came in the midst of the annual Shiite Muslim pilgrimage to Karbala that was to have culminated in prayers and festivities today in commemoration of the birth of Mohammed Mahdi, one of Shiite Islam’s 12 revered imams. The curfews and evacuation order scuttled the highlight of the ritual in honor of the 9th century prophet who disappeared and, according to Shiite belief, will return one day to usher in an era of peace.
Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the majority Shiite population oppressed by his Sunni-dominated government has had new freedom to participate in pilgrimages and other religious activities. But some of the mass activities have been marred by attacks by the rival Sunni Muslim community. In this case, the fighting is between rival Shiite groups that have been battling for political supremacy as Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government founders amid accusations of incompetence and sectarianism.
Sadr’s political movement has been boycotting the government, and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council’s top figure in the national leadership, Vice President Adel Abdul Mehdi, has been seen as a potential successor to Maliki should he resign or should the parliament oust him.
Witnesses reported that the fighting this week began with Mahdi militiamen hurling rocks, bricks and knives at local police and quickly escalated into an exchange of rocket-propelled grenades and AK-47 fire.
Iraqi authorities ordered a curfew for the besieged city 50 miles south of Baghdad as well as for Najaf and Hillah, other Badr strongholds in the region, and sent buses to begin evacuating pilgrims.
“I am stuck in Karbala near the governorate building where I’m hearing a heavy exchange of gunfire,” a pilgrim from Najaf, who did not want to be identified, said by cellphone from where he was taking cover about 200 yards from the Imam Hussein shrine. He reported that gunmen set fire to the nearby hotels after militiamen holed up inside fired on local police and Iraqi army troops. Pilgrims had also taken refuge in the buildings to escape stray gunfire.
As the violence escalated despite the Iraqi government’s deployment of 15,000 security troops, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaimed the U.S. mission to bring peace to Iraq a failure that has produced a power vacuum. He observed that Iran and other countries in the region were “prepared to fill that void.” It was not immediately clear whether he was speaking in reaction to the Karbala situation or making a general condemnation of the U.S. presence in Iraq.
“The political power of the occupiers has been destroyed,” Ahmadinejad told reporters at a news conference in Tehran. “Rapidly and very soon we will witness a great void in the region, and we and our friends, along with Saudi Arabia and the nation of Iraq, are prepared to fill that void.”
The Pentagon has sent 28,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq over the last six months, but civilian deaths from sectarian fighting, assassinations and militia power struggles have continued. The violence has thwarted U.S. aims of turning over responsibility for security to the Iraqi government, whose police and army ranks are often overwhelmed, or infiltrated, by more powerful and better armed militias.
The violence convulsing Karbala had killed 51 and injured 206 by nightfall, said an Interior Ministry official here who asked not to be named. It was unclear whether that figure included 11 people killed over the previous two days as pilgrims made their way to Karbala along roads teeming with snipers. Four pilgrims died in the first gun battle near the shrine late Monday.
Intra-Shiite fighting had spread to Baghdad by Tuesday evening, when gunmen believed to be Mahdi militiamen attacked at least four offices of rival political factions. They burned Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and Islamic Dawa Party buildings in the Kadhimiya neighborhood and kidnapped four guards at the council’s headquarters.
In Sadr City, the Baghdad district that is the Mahdi Army’s stronghold and home to 2 million Shiites, they raided Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council offices, killing five people and injuring 20. In the northeastern neighborhood of Husseiniya, gunmen used rocket-propelled grenades to destroy the offices of the council, which is headed by Najaf cleric Abdelaziz Hakim.
U.S. troops in armored vehicles secured the areas, Baghdad police reported.
Americans also surrounded one of Baghdad’s top hotels in what police and hotel personnel said was an operation in search of Iranians suspected of weapons smuggling.
Videotape shot by Associated Press Television News showed U.S. troops leading about 10 blindfolded and handcuffed men out of the hotel. The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad would say only that a delegation from Iran’s Electricity Ministry had been staying at the hotel.
U.S. forces on Monday raided what they said was a Sunni insurgent refuge north of Baghdad near the Shiite town of Khalis, and on Tuesday killed 33 suspected fighters of Al Qaeda in Iraq. There were no reported U.S. fatalities, which total 3,732 since the March 2003 start of the war here, according to the website icasualties.org.
In the Cairo neighborhood of northeastern Baghdad, five carloads of gunmen descended on a Sunni mosque, where they killed three people and kidnapped the imam and two assistants, police said.
A mortar shell fell in east Baghdad at 5 p.m., killing one civilian, and a car bomb earlier in the day outside the capital’s civil defense headquarters killed one person and injured two.
The Karbala clashes were ignited late Monday when Najaf cleric Hakim’s son, Ammar, arrived at the shrine with a phalanx of Badr Organization bodyguards. They were waved through the security cordon holding back the rest of the worshipers, including Mahdi militiamen, witnesses said. Three died in that initial fight and one of several wounded succumbed overnight.
By Tuesday, both factions appeared to be seeking revenge for the previous night’s bloodshed.
“The guards of the shrine just started shooting toward the pilgrims,” said a Sadr City man in the midst of the melee Tuesday who wanted to be identified only as Abu Anwar. “Some of the casualties are from gunshots, but many others were caused by the stampede when everyone was trying to flee.”
Shooting flared in the afternoon, when local police, some affiliated with the Badr militia, sought to flush out gunmen who had taken up positions in the hotels flanking the road between two shrines -- Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas -- that form the religious heart of the city. The hotels were set ablaze, as were cars flanking the thronged streets and parts of the Hussein shrine. Windows were broken and their frames charred by fires ignited by grenades.
Witnesses said the fighting moved several blocks from the holy sites by late Tuesday but that smoke could be seen billowing from the shrine that had been strewn with garlands of white lights that formed a festive canopy. U.S. military aircraft buzzed over the scene, the witnesses reported.
Police and Iraqi army forces used loudspeakers to order those from outside Karbala to move to the city’s outskirts so they could be bused to safety.
Some pilgrims who left before the order was issued faced further harassment by gunmen along the route. A boy was killed and his father wounded in a drive-by shooting as they drove north of Hillah toward Baghdad, and at least six people traveling in private cars or minibuses were hit by gunfire suspected to be coming from Sunni snipers.
Maliki ordered more security forces to Karbala to protect the evacuation route to Baghdad and vowed to bring the perpetrators of the violence to justice.
“The government will confront all the outlaws and will not accept such blackmail that would weaken the state,” the prime minister told Al Hurra TV at the end of a day replete with the chaos he has been accused of fostering by ignoring the actions of rogue Shiite militias.
A spokesman for Sadr’s organization denied in a statement from Najaf that the Mahdi Army had been involved in the Karbala violence.
Special correspondent Fakhrildeen reported from Najaf and Times staff writer Williams from Baghdad. Special correspondents Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Maha Khateeb in Hillah, and Times staff writer Saif Rasheed in Baghdad contributed to this report.