Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki clamped a curfew on the shrine city of Karbala yesterday after gunbattles in its crowded streets turned a Shiite pilgrimage into a bloodbath with 52 people dead.
Maliki accused members of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's regime of fomenting the violence and said Iraq's security forces had now taken control of the city, still smouldering from a night of bitter fighting.
The indefinite curfew took effect from 11am and applies to people and vehicles, Iraqi state television quoted Maliki as saying during a visit to Karbala.
Security force reinforcements had been sent to the city, which lies 110km south of Baghdad, and were now in control, Maliki said in an earlier statement.
An AFP correspondent in Karbala said battles between gunmen and police which broke out on Tuesday raged through the night, but died away early yesterday.
Gunmen were seen at dawn encamped in a square near the old city, which houses shrines to two Shiite saints, Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, the focus of Tuesday's pilgrimage.
Tuesday's clashes sent hundreds of thousands of pilgrims fleeing in panic. They had been streaming into the city from across the country to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of eighth-century Imam Mohammed al-Mahdi.
Karbala police chief Brigadier General Hamid Raad Shaker said that the clashes erupted when gunmen shot at police who returned fire, and that several mortar rounds struck near the Imam Hussein mausoleum.
Several buildings were burned down during the night while ambulances were smashed and a police checkpoint destroyed, the correspondent said.
Medical officials said at least 52 people had been killed. Approximately 300 people were wounded, with at least 60 of them sent to hospitals in the nearby city of Najaf for treatment.