Thu, Mar 04, 2004 - Page 1 News List

Shiite leaders call for calm as bomb victims are buried

REUTERS , KERBALA, IRAQ

Iraqi Shiite leaders appealed for calm yesterday and urged their followers not to be provoked into civil war by a wave of bomb attacks on Tuesday that killed at least 185 worshippers as they marked their holiest day.

Huge crowds of mourners marched through the holy city of Kerbala chanting "God is Great-est" and bearing flower-laden coffins aloft through streets packed with Shiites.

Suicide bombers, mortars and concealed explosives killed at least 115 people in Kerbala on Tuesday, while three suicide bombers killed at least 70 in Baghdad, according to the latest figures from Iraqi Health Minister Khudier Abbass.

The coordinated attacks, targeting Shiites marking the holy period of Ashura with mass gatherings in Iraqi cities, made it the bloodiest day since former president Saddam Hussein was toppled.

Ayatollah Hadi al-Muddaresi, one of Iraq's leading Shiite clerics, said the bombings were an attempt by Sunni extremists to foment civil war in Iraq, where the 60 percent Shiite majority were for decades suppressed under Saddam, a Sunni.

"There are parties and groups that are willing to push Iraq towards civil war, but I don't think it will happen because the first people who will loose will be those who are pushing for it," the cleric said in his offices in Kerbala.

Iraq's US-appointed Governing Council blames the attacks on Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian who Washington says works for the militantly Sunni al-Qaeda. US forces have put a US$10 million bounty on his head and say they intercepted a letter from him last month urging attacks on Shiites to ignite civil war.

A letter purporting to come from al Qaeda and sent to the London-based al-Quds al Arabi newspaper denied any role in Tuesday's violence, blaming it instead on the US.

The Governing Council announced three days of mourning from yesterday and postponed the signing of an interim constitution agreed earlier this week after days of wrangling.

There were scenes of grief at the funerals in Baghdad and Kerbala but few signs Shiites wanted violent revenge.

"Enemies of Shiite Islam want to kill Shiites and provoke civil strife," said Hussein Shammari, a man in his 50s in Kerbala. "But anything they do against us will not affect us because we are not afraid. Saddam did worse -- he killed hundreds of thousands of Shiites, but we are still here."

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