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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

American Forces Press Service

Blasts in Baghdad, Karbala Kill 143 Shiia Pilgrims

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 2, 2004 - At least 143 Iraqis were killed in terrorist attacks today in Baghdad and Karbala, coalition officials said at a Baghdad news conference.

Suicide bombers attacked Shiia Muslims as they observed Ashoura, the holiest day in the Shiia calendar. Ashoura commemorates the death in battle of Hussain, the third Shiite Imam, in A.D. 680.

The Iraqi Governing Council wasted no time in attributing the blasts to Abu Musab Zarqawi, a terrorist with ties to al Qaeda. He wrote a letter to al Qaeda leaders, detailing how he would bring on a sectarian civil war in Iraq, which was intercepted by the coalition in Iraq.

"Certainly, one of the chief suspects in this would be Zarqawi, just by the methods that have been used in the past, just by the techniques that have been used in the past," said Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt during the news conference. The attacks point to a "transnational organization with local assistance," he said. Kimmitt is deputy operations director for Combined Joint Task Force 7.

The blasts were nearly simultaneous in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad and in Karbala, about 50 miles to the south. In Baghdad, the blasts ripped through crowds gathered at the Kazimiya shrine, killing at least 58 and wounding more than 200. Iraqi police said three suicide bombers were responsible. A fourth suicide bomber whose vest did not explode was captured at the scene.

In Karbala, there was an explosion in the center of the city as well as explosions on a road used by Shiite pilgrims leading to a Shiia shrine. Officials said the blasts were intended to maximize civilian casualties. These attacks killed at least 85 Iraqis and wounded 230.

"The explosions were caused by three methods: a suicide bomber in the city center, explosives along the road outside the city set off by remote-detonation devices, and mortar rounds fired from near the city," Kimmitt said. He said Iraqi police arrested six people, and that no group has taken responsibility for the attacks.

In the aftermath, some Shiia - noting the absence of coalition forces near the mosques - said the coalition should do more to protect them. Kimmitt said the coalition worked with Iraqi officials to tailor the protective posture around these sites and many others. "The plan was specifically meant to respect the cultural requirements and the cultural desires of those planning these events," Kimmitt said. "The coalition forces set an outer cordon, the Iraqis Civil Defense Service as well as the Iraqi Police Service set the inner cordon. These were coordinated plans."

"This was a clear and well-organized act of terrorism," Dan Senor, senior coalition spokesman, said. "We've seen these acts of terrorism can be carried out all over the world."

Senor stressed the attacks follow agreement on the Transitional Administrative Law, or interim constitution, that guarantees democratic rights to the Iraqi people. He added that Zarqawi specifically identified "the path to Iraqi democracy" as the greatest threat to terrorist groups.

In an unrelated attack, a 1st Armored Division soldier was killed and another was wounded when someone threw a hand grenade into a humvee. Their names are being withheld until their families are notified.

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