At least 74 people were killed and 376 wounded in a mortar attack at a mosque and shooting on demonstrators loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in the southern city of Kufa, the Iraqi Health Ministry said.
Officials were unable to distinguish between those who died in the double mortar bombing at the city’s main Kufa mosque, an al-Sadr stronghold, and the shooting, which was blamed on Iraqi national guardsmen.
The shootings on the eastern side of Najaf came before Iraq’s top Shi’ite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, headed for the holy city for talks to end three weeks of fighting between al-Sadr’s militia and United States-led government forces.
Najaf governor Adnan al-Zorfi said no one would be allowed into Najaf before the arrival of Sistani, who called on Wednesday for all Shi’ites in Iraq to converge on the city to “save” it.
Thousands of people chanting slogan in support of al-Sadr and denouncing Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi were heading from Kufa for nearby Najaf when they came under fire from national guardsmen as they passed a military base, an AFP photographer said.
The US marines denied any involvement in the shooting.
“We have not conducted any military operations in the last 48 hours in Kufa,” said a statement issued in Arabic on behalf of the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit.
“On the contrary, everyone witnessed the savage manner in which the militiamen opened fire,” it added.
Zorfi also ruled out any responsibility from the Iraqi national guard, saying Kufa was under the full control of al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army.
The shooting broke out not long after doctors said at least 25 people were killed and more than 100 wounded when two mortar bombs fell on Kufa’s main mosque compound, controlled by al-Sadr’s militiamen.
It was not known who fired the bombs, which exploded in the compound and by the door of the mosque, where hundreds were gathered, preparing to welcome Sistani.
Hospitals as far away as Hilla, more than 50km away, were swamped by the casualties from both incidents and were not able to give a precise toll.
Cars and ambulances picked up the wounded to rush them for treatment, but the demonstrators still appeared determined to reach Najaf.
Later, national guards also fired on demonstrators from Diwaniya, 50km away, who tried to enter Najaf from the east. An AFP photographer saw bloodstains and shoes on the ground. — AFP