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Mortar Attack On Iraq Shiites Highlights Sectarian Divide

Iraqis vie each other to touch the tomb of Abul Fadel al-Abbas, one of the religious leaders of Shiites in the southern city of Karbala, 20 March 2006. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Staff Writers
Karbala, Iraq (AFP) Mar 21, 2006
A missile was fired into a Shiite holy city Sunday as hundreds of thousands gathered for a major religious holiday, raising fears of civil war on the third anniversary of America's war on Iraq.

The 122 millimetre Grad missile, one of three fired at the southern shrine city of Karbala, caused no casualties but came as a sea of Shiite pilgrims gathered to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein, Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Governor Aqil Khazali told a news conference.

There have been numerous attacks on pilgrims walking to Karbala, killing at least 12 people and fueling rampant fears that the country -- which is still without a new government three months after a landmark election -- was ripe for more communal bloodshed.

"Three Grad missiles were fired towards Karbala, two fell into the desert and one in town," Khazali said.

Police initially said a mortar shell landed in a parking lot, causing no casualties.

"This is the first time that the terrorists used this type of missile," the governor said, adding that they were fired from the Musayyib region, about 20 kilometres (15 miles) away.

Karbala police chief General Razeq al-Tayi said the missiles were fired from a rural area, adding "we have no way of preventing such attacks as we have no aerial observation capabilities".

The governor said he had asked US-led coalition forces to provide air cover during the pilgrimage which reaches its climax on Monday.

Just on Sunday, six more pilgrims were wounded in a drive-by shooting in Latifiyah, 40 kilometres (25 miles) south of the capital, local medics said.

Security has been tightened in the Karbala with vehicle traffic banned in the city to prevent car bombings and successive cordons of police searching pilgrims.

Over 2,000 Iraqi police commandos, 10,000 policemen and 1,500 soldiers have been drafted into the region to boost security, said Karbala's police chief.

US forces brought in an extra 700 soldiers from neighbouring Kuwait to boost security for the pilgrimage.

Extremist Sunnis, bent on triggering a civil war which could lead to the disintegration of the country, have multiplied their attacks on the majority Shiite population.

In Karbala, a suicide bomber blew himself up in January in the middle of a busy market area near the Iman Hussein shrine, killing at least 44 and wounding 85 others.

Never in the three years since the US-led coalition invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein has the country looked so close to the edge of civil war.

Former prime minister Iyad Allawi even suggested Iraq has already slid into such a conflict.

"We are losing each day an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more," Allawi told the BBC. "If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is."

A major US-Iraqi operation sweeping for insurgents near Samarra, north of Baghdad, entered its fourth day on Sunday with the arrest of 60 suspects and the discovery of 11 weapons caches.

The highly-publicized operation featured helicopters transporting troops to the rural area. But the only opposition was a roadside bomb that lightly damaged one vehicle on Sunday.

Twelve people were killed in violence around Iraq Sunday, including seven Iraqis when US forces returned fire during a raid on the town of Dhuluiya, north of Baghdad, security sources said.

The violence wracking the country comes amid mounting pressure for the nation's politicians to finally agree on the shape of the country's first permanent government since the invasion.

The turmoil coincides with rising public dissatisfaction with the war in the United States on the invasion's third anniversary, which falls on March 20, with anti-war demonstrations being held across the globe.

US President George W. Bush said Saturday that the war was "the right decision" and vowed to overcome violence that has killed some 2,300 US soldiers.

US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned a quick US pullout from Iraq will result in terrorists taking it over -- and insisted it would be tantamount to handing Germany back to the Nazis.

"Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis," he said in Sunday's Washington Post.

Recent polls show that 65 percent of Americans disapprove of Bush's handling of the situation in Iraq.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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