Car bomb kills scores near Iraqi shrine

A suicide car bomber detonated his payload on a crowded street near a revered Shi’ite shrine in the Iraqi city of Karbala on Saturday, killing at least 58 people and wounding nearly 170 others.

”Many of the wounded are women and children,” said Salim Kadhim, spokesperson for the Karbala health department, as the wards of city hospitals flooded with scorched and mutilated survivors.

”Most of the dead are charred beyond recognition, but we have managed to identify a two-year-old Iranian girl who was killed,” Kadhim said, adding that among the wounded there were 20 women.

A senior police officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the attack had been carried out by a suicide bomber, the deadly hallmark of Iraq’s Sunni insurgency.

The blast erupted 200m from the shrine of Imam Abbas, the second holiest in Karbala, at 7.10pm local time when al-Abbas street was crowded with passers-by, local officials said.

A vast, angry crowd — several hundred strong — descended on the scene to search for missing relatives amid thick black smoke rising from a number of cars burned out following the explosion. Ambulances struggled to nose their way through the crowd to pick up the bloodied dead and wounded, scattered in doorways and by the roadside.

Authorities imposed an overnight curfew as furious residents of Karbala blamed the security forces for allowing the blast.

”We need the government to clean up the security services in Karbala because they are taking salaries and not doing anything,” said Ahmed al-Hassnawi, an owner of a shop located near the site of the blast.

”The security services in Karbala are inefficient, untrained … For this reason the forces are unable to protect themselves, so how can they protect the citizens?” he asked.

Hussain Mahdi, another resident, asked: ”Do the officials of Karbala not see what happens in the city every Saturday? Karbala has become unsafe because of the weakness of the security forces, because politicians interfere in it in order to support their own loyalists. They are loyal to the parties and not to the profession.”

The explosion was the second such attack to rock the central Iraqi shrine city in two weeks, after an April 14 suicide bombing near the main Imam Hussein shrine bomb killed 42 people and wounded scores more.

Mahdi, pointing at the site of the latest blast, said such areas are never checked by the police. ”There are thousands in the security services but they do not do anything except routine inspections and they do not check these areas at all. This causes the deaths of hundreds of innocent people in every explosion.”

Another witness, Abdul Hadi Gowaid, who saw charred remains of bodies and burned shops, demanded that a special force be sent to protect Karbala.

”The central government has to create a special force to protect Karbala rather than security services dominated by people with political connections,” he said. ”A lot of people appointed in security services get their jobs after paying bribes. How do you expect such police to work for you?”

Karbala is a major destination for Iraq’s Shi’ite majority. It also attracts pilgrims from Iran and Shi’ite communities across the Middle East and beyond.

Although the shrines were not reported to have been damaged, the latest attack will stoke already raging sectarian tensions, as previous assaults on Shi’ite mosques have usually been blamed on Sunni extremists.

Elsewhere in Iraq, at least another 20 people were killed on Saturday in the ongoing carnage.

Four people were killed and three others wounded when gunmen attacked a public minibus in Baghdad’s mixed Sunni and Shi’ite district of Zafaraniyah, a security official said.

Another 16 died in separate attacks around Iraq, while police also found 18 corpses in Baghdad, a security official said.

As attacks continued across Iraq, small crowds of Iraqi Sunnis gathered to mark what would have been ousted president Saddam Hussein’s 70th birthday, and the first since his execution, amid calls to keep the ceremonies low-key.

About 200 local residents, mostly children between the ages of seven and 12, gathered at the former dictator’s tomb in Awja, his home village outside the city of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. — Sapa-AFP

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