Bombers strike as Shi’ite pilgrimage starts

Two suicide car bombers killed 10 people when they struck checkpoints south of Baghdad on Monday on a road used by thousands of Iraqi Shi’ite pilgrims making their way by foot to the holy city of Karbala.

The dead included seven police officers and a soldier, killed when two bombers struck separate road checkpoints halfway between Baghdad and Karbala, a defence ministry official said.

At least 12 people, including a number of Shi’ite pilgrims, were wounded.

Security forces were out in force along highways leading to Karbala, 110km south of the capital, and around the town itself to guard against attacks at a time of heightened tension following the killing last week of more than 200 Shi’ites in a series of bomb attacks.

Further south, angry demonstrators in the port city of Basra set two British tanks ablaze, with their crews escaping without returning fire.

British soldiers earlier fired warning shots at demonstrators who, angry at the arrest of two suspects, had thrown stones at them.

Al-Qaeda’s frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, on Wednesday called for ”all-out war” against Shi’ites after the Shi’ite-led government launched an offensive to recapture the northern town of Tal Afar, held by Sunni Arab rebels.

Shi’ite Muslims on Monday were commemorating the birth of Imam Mehdi, their 12th and last imam who disappeared more than 11 centuries ago. They believe he will return to rule the world before judgement day.

This year’s commemoration was attracting massive numbers of pilgrims who have been marking religious occasions openly since the ousting of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who banned such pilgrimages.

”Security measures have been completed,” said Karbala’s governor Akeel al-Khazaali, adding that a division of the Iraqi army had been deployed around the city to prevent possible mortar or rocket attacks.

”A public-order battalion has also been deployed inside the city, in addition to 5 000 policemen,” he said.

Police media spokesperson Rahman al-Mushawi said about 50 artillery shells were found on Monday in Karbala, but it was not immediately known if they were intended for bombings.

Five Arabs from the Gulf region were also detained in the town because of suspicious paperwork, along with eight Iraqis, the spokesperson said, giving no details.

Local police chief General Kerim Hashem al-Hasnawi said he expected the number of pilgrims to reach three million at the climax of the pilgrimage rituals on Monday evening.

Meanwhile, Baghdad announced that one of Saddam’s nephews, Aymen Sabawi, has been sentenced to life imprisonment for making bombs and financing rebel activities.

”Iraqi criminal court has convicted the terrorist Aymen Sabawi, a half-brother nephew of Saddam Hussein, for being an active insurgency supporter, [and] also for possession and manufacture of explosive devices, and sentenced him to life imprisonment,” a government statement said.

It is the first time that a relative of the deposed leader has been sentenced for taking part in the insurgency, with Saddam himself due to go on trial over charges of crimes against humanity on October 19. — Sapa-AFP

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