Mosque attack bloodbath

A mortar barrage hit the main mosque in the Iraqi city of Kufa on Thursday, killing 27 people and wounding 63 others as they prepared to march on the violence-wracked city of Najaf, hospital officials and witnesses said.

Hours after the attack, unidentified gunmen opened fire on thousands of Shi’ite Muslim marchers heading to Najaf, killing at least one, witnesses said.

Thousands of people were crowded around Kufa’s golden-domed mosque at the time and ambulances raced to the scene to take scores of wounded to a nearby hospital. Dead bodies lay around the mosque compound, a stronghold of followers of radical Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, witnesses said.

Hussam al-Husseini, a Sadr aide, said one mortar shell hit the mosque compound itself and two others hit near the mosque gates. Others said there were only two explosions.

Blood was splattered on concrete pavement in a courtyard beside the mosque and a pair of sandals stood empty nearby, according to Associated Press (AP).
Shrapnel from the explosions tore small chunks out of walls and the pavement, but there appeared to be no serious structural damage to the compound.

Mohammed Abdel Khadum, an official at al-Furat al-Awsat hospital in Kufa, confirmed the number of people killed and injured in the blast. The morgue overflowed with bodies, and more than a dozen corpses had to be stored in the hospital’s garden.

Outside the hospital’s gate, crowds of angry people gathered, shouting “God is great!”

It was unclear who fired the mortars. United States forces have battled Shi’ite insurgents loyal to Sadr in neighbouring Najaf and sporadically in Kufa for three weeks.

“We were gathering outside and inside the mosque preparing to head to Najaf when two mortar shells landed, one inside the mosque and the other at the main gate,” said Hani Hashem, bringing an injured friend to the hospital. “This is a criminal act. We just wanted to launch a peaceful demonstration.”

After the attack, thousands of demonstrators loyal to Sadr marched on nearby Najaf, but came under fire from a base between the two cities housing Iraqi national guardsmen and US troops, witnesses said.

The marchers scattered when the gunfire broke out. Casualties were carried away in private civilian vehicles and ambulances.

An AP reporter on the scene saw at least one body and witnesses reported seeing other casualties. The day before, gunmen shooting from the same base killed two people and wounded five others who were taking part in what appeared to be a peaceful demonstration supporting Sadr.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al-Sistani, returned home to Iraq on Wednesday from a three-week trip to London, and was headed to Najaf on Thursday in a bid to end the fighting.

Upon his arrival Wednesday, al-Sistani’s aides had called on supporters across the country to march on Najaf to support his peace bid.

Sadr has regularly delivered a sermon during Friday prayers at the Kufa mosque.

Al-Husseini said another mosque in Kufa had also been hit by mortar rounds. It was unclear whether there were casualties there.

He blamed the Kufa mosque bombing on US forces backing Iraqi troops in the city, but a US military spokesperson denied this.

Al-Husseini said: “We hold the interim government responsible for this bombing. We hold it responsible for this bloodshed.”

Marine Captain Carrie Batson said in an e-mail to AP on Thursday that US forces in the area “continue not to target holy sites, including the Kufa mosque.

“We did not have any weapons systems, including mortars, in range of the Kufa mosque [Wednesday] night, nor have we conducted any military operations in the city for the last 48 hours,” Batson said.

Batson said that militants have been responsible for “wild, undisciplined fire” in the past.

Earlier in the week, US forces released photos purportedly showing a militant mortar system outside the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf and accused the militants of launching a rocket from inside the shrine compound that fell short and exploded just outside.

On Wednesday three mortar rounds, apparently targeting a police checkpoint, hit a civilian area in Kufa, killing two civilians, including an eight-year-old boy, and wounding four others, witnesses and hospital officials said.

Kufa is just a few kilometres northeast of Najaf, where fierce clashes continued on Thursday with US warplanes bombing suspected positions of Sadr’s Mahdi army militia and explosions booming across the city.

Al-Sistani is calling for Najaf and Kufa to be declared weapons-free cities, for all foreign forces to withdraw from Najaf and leave security to the police and for the Iraqi government to compensate those harmed by the fighting, according to al-Sistani aide Hamed al-Khafaf.

The gray-bearded cleric wields enormous influence among Shi’ite Iraqis, and his arrival in Iraq had bolstered hopes the crisis can be resolved peacefully. — Sapa-AP

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