Pilgrims flee Iraq city as gun battles rage

Local authorities began evacuating hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from the Iraqi city of Karbala on Tuesday as a battle raged between Iraqi security forces and gunmen near two of Shi’ite Islam’s holiest shrines.

A senior security source in Baghdad said 25 people had been killed, mostly police officers. The director of Karbala’s al-Hussein Hospital said it had received eight bodies and 29 wounded.

The fighting appeared to be between gunmen loyal to fiery Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, possibly members of his Mehdi Army militia, and police linked to the rival Shi’ite political movement, the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SICC) and its Badr Organisation.

Police said a curfew had been imposed and buses were being organised to evacuate the pilgrims, most of whom had walked from Baghdad and elsewhere to mark the 9th century birth of Mohammad al-Mahdi, the last of 12 imams Shi’ites revere as saints.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Brigadier General Abdul Kareem Khalaf told state television that reinforcements were being rushed to Karbala from Baghdad and neighbouring provinces. He said 50 people had been killed and wounded in the violence.

Reuters witnesses in the city, 110km south of Baghdad, could hear the sound of intense gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades being fired and saw columns of smoke rising from the centre of the city, apparently from cars that police said had been set ablaze.

Police said gunmen armed with automatic weapons and pistols were trying to take control of the area around the Imam Ali and Imam Abbas shrines, the focal point of Tuesday’s ceremonies.

Guns, swords

Hazem al-Araji, a senior aide to Sadr, told Reuters from Karbala that the clashes erupted when police objected to pilgrims chanting pro-Sadr slogans and began beating them.

Another Sadr aide, Ammar al-Saidi, said the treatment of the pilgrims had enraged Sadrists in Karbala and sparked revenge attacks on the security forces.

A Reuters witness saw bands of gunmen roaming the streets armed with heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, batons and swords, beating pilgrims, including women. He also saw two bodies being carried in the street.

SIIC’s Furat television station stopped broadcasting the ceremonies after earlier showing what it said were live pictures of pilgrims milling peacefully at the two shrines.

The Sadrists and SIIC, the two biggest Shi’ite blocs in the Iraqi Parliament, are locked in a power struggle for control of towns and cities in Iraq’s predominantly Shi’ite south. The police in many of these towns are seen to be loyal to Badr.

Analysts fear the struggle for dominance will intensify ahead of provincial elections expected to take place next year.

The fighting is likely to be seen as embarrassing for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who is keen to show that his security forces are ready to take control of security from US-led forces.

One of his two deputies, Barham Salih, a Kurd, warned in an interview with Reuters late on Monday that an early US troop pull-out would trigger a full-scale civil war.

”A premature withdrawal of troops from Iraq will be a disaster, not only for Iraq, but for the region and the international community as a whole,” Salih said.

”It will lead to an all-out civil war, it will lead to a regional war in my opinion because the fate of Iraq is crucial to the regional balance and to regional security.”

Tuesday’s violence followed clashes late on Monday night between police and pilgrims in the city which the local hospital said seven pilgrims were killed and 35 wounded.

Police had said the overnight violence was sparked by pilgrims angered by the lengthy queues caused by the strict security measures in force for the celebrations.

About 10 000 police officers and 5 000 Iraqi soldiers had been deployed for the festival. — Reuters

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