Officials caught two suspects red-handed in the deadly attacks in Karbala on Tuesday, a spokesperson for the Polish forces responsible for security in the city said.
“They were caught red-handed as they prepared to launch new mortar attacks,” said Colonel Zdzislaw Gnatowski, speaking for the Polish army chief of staff.
Before the announcement of the two arrests, a spokesperson for the police in Karbala said one suspect of Iranian nationality had been arrested.
A series of coordinated blasts struck major Shiite Muslim shrines in Karbala and in Kazimiya, Baghdad, on Tuesday as thousands of pilgrims converged on the climactic day of the sect’s most important religious festival. Scores were killed and wounded, witnesses said. The blasts killed at least 125 people and injured hundreds.
Between 50 and 60 people were killed in the Karbala attacks, and 75 others died at Kazimiya, said Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a representative of a top Shiite party on the governing council.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hamid Reza Assefi meanwhile condemned the “brutal terrorist attacks” on the Iraqi capital and Karbala, and criticised the United States-led occupation forces for failing to “bring security to the Iraqis”.
US intelligence officials have long been concerned about the possibility of militant attacks on the Ashoura festival, and coalition and Iraqi forces bolstered security around Karbala and other Shiite-majority towns in the south during the pilgrimage.
Last month, US officials released what they said was a letter by a Jordanian militant outlining a strategy of spectacular attacks on Shiites, aimed at sparking a Sunni-Shiite civil war.
In Karbala, 80km south of Baghdad, five large blasts went off shortly after 10am near two of the most important shrines in Shiite Islam, hurling bodies in all directions and sending crowds of pilgrims fleeing in panic.
An Associated Press reporter saw 10 bodies that appeared to be dead being loaded on to wooden carts and taken away. Bodies ripped apart by the force of the blasts lay on the streets.
At about the same time, three explosions rocked the inside and outside of the Kazimiya shrine in Baghdad. Panicked men and women, dressed in black, fled screaming and weeping as ambulances raced to the scene.
Angry mobs hurled stones at US troops who later pulled into the square outside Kazimiya in humvees and an armoured vehicle. Crowds of enraged survivors swarmed nearby hospitals, some blaming Americans for stirring up religious tensions by launching the war, others blaming al-Qaeda or Sunni extremists.
The Ashoura festival, which marks the seventh-century killing of Imam Hussein, is the most important religious period in Shiite Islam and draws hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and other Shiite communities to the Iraqi shrines.
The Karbala blasts struck near the golden-domed shrine where Imam Hussein is buried, in a neighbourhood of several pilgrimage sites.
After the blasts, Shiite militiamen tried to clear the terrified crowds, firing guns into the air. Two more blasts went off about a half-hour later.
“We were standing there [next to the mosques] when we heard an explosion. We saw flesh, arms legs, more flesh. Then the ambulance came,” said Tarar, an 18-year-old, giving only one name.
Two armed Iraqi policemen broke down in tears as they walked through the bomb site.
Iraqi militia initially tried to control the crowd and arrested two men the crowd attempted to lynch. Rumours swirled throughout the city as to the cause of the blasts, ranging from mortars fired from outside the town to suicide bombers in the crowd.
One witness said a bomb was hidden near the mosque.
“Many Iranians were killed, I was 10m away, it was hidden under rubbish,” said one witness, identifying himself only as Sairouz.
The Kazimiya blasts went off inside the shrine’s ornately tiled walls and outside in a square packed with street vendors catering to pilgrims. The street outside Kazimiya was littered with picnic baskets brought by pilgrims and thousands of shoes and sandals belonging to worshippers who had been praying inside the shrine.
The courtyard inside the shrine was strewn with torn limbs.
Hundreds of gunmen swarmed inside and outside the walled shrine as men wept. A US helicopter hovered over the shrine. Black mourning banners traditional in Ashoura celebrations hung in tatters. Posters of prominent Shiite clerics were stained with blood.
“How is it possible that any man, let alone a Muslim man, does this on the day of al-Hussein?” asked Thaer al-Shimri, a member of the Shiite Al-Dawa party. “Today war has been launched on Islam.”
In the southern city Najaf, near Karbala, police on Monday night found and defused a bomb hidden near the shrine of Imam Ali, the most important Shiite saint, Iraqi police Captain Imad Hussein said.
Three sticks of dynamite with a timer were stuffed inside a water pipe 30m from the shrine, he said, adding that if it had gone off, the explosion would have injured or killed many.
On August 29, a massive car bomb detonated at the Imam Ali shrine as worshippers emerged from Friday prayers, killing more than 85 people, including Shiite leader Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim.
In the letter released last month, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, an extremist believed linked to al-Qaeda, wrote that stepped-up attacks were needed to disrupt the planned handover of power to the Iraqis on June 30.
Also on Tuesday, a land mine exploded in the Abu Nawas neighbourhood of Baghdad, damaging a car used by the Arab television station Al-Jazeera and lightly wounding several staffers. — Sapa-AP