Iraqi Shiite leaders were preparing for greater violence yesterday, but vowed to push ahead with elections in January after twin car bombs claimed the lives of 66 people in the pilgrimage cities of Najaf and Karbala.
The bombings that wreaked carnage at a funeral procession in Najaf and a packed bus station in Karbala were a stark reminder of the violence that could lie ahead in the six weeks before the Jan. 30 elections.
Fifty-one people, including an Arab national, were detained after the attack, Najaf governor Adnan al-Zorfi told reporters.
"We have found a connection between the two bombings in Karbala and Najaf," Zorfi said.
"This operation is part of the sectarian war waged by terrorists both inside and outside Iraq to impede the democratic process and to cancel the elections," Zorfi said.
Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said al-Hakim, one of the four senior Shiite clerics in Iraq, warned attackers were "trying to spark sedition and destabilize the country" and called on the Iraqi government to "put an end to these crimes and to arrest the evil-doers."
Shiite leaders cautioned that the attacks in Najaf, which killed 52 people and wounded 145, and in Karbala, claiming the lives of 14 and wounding 57 others, aimed to scare people away from voting.
"They want to make a civil war. These are Shiite cities, but the attackers will not have an effect on elections," said Ammar Dakhl al-Assaidi, a spokesman for the Shiite fundamentalist Dawa party. "There will be more car bombs, suicide bombs, assassinations. There will be more bloodshed, it will increase in Shiite areas and mixed areas, where Shiites, Sunnis and Christians live together."
He blamed the bombings on radical Islamic group al-Qaeda, its suspected pointman in Iraq, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, and members of captured former president Saddam Hussein's old regime.
A spokesman for another Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), warned the attacks meant to intimidate Iraqis from taking part in the electoral process.
"They are trying to deter people from participating in the elections ... They've miscalculated," Haitham al-Husseini said.
Sheikh Sadraddin Kubanji, an associate of the country's leading cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said the attacks targeted both the political process and Najaf's Marjayah, or elite Shiite clerics, that give spiritual guidance to millions around Iraq.
"We find that the enemies of Marjayah and the people were trying to convey two messages: One sent to the Marjayah stating `We will ... take care of the political process you are backing. The second message was to address the multitudes that if they are to take part [in the elections] they would face the same fate,'" he said.
He noted the Najaf blast was not far from Sistani's offices.
Kubanji announced a three-day period of mourning and blamed the bombings on former members of Saddam's regime, along with Islamic extremists.
Political analysts weighed in with a grim prognosis.
"There will be violence to make the elections difficult and dangerous, so people stay home and do not vote. There will also be attacks to jump-start a civil war," said International Crisis Group analyst Joost Hiltermann.
In another assault on the electoral process, three election workers were dragged out of their cars in Baghdad on Sunday and shot dead.