BAGHDAD, Iraq, AP -A suicide bomber detonated a belt of explosives on his body near a highly revered Shiite shrine in southern Iraq Thursday, killing at least 35 people and injuring 122, the Iraqi army said.
The bomber blew himself up while being patted down by policemen near the Imam Ali mosque in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, said Dr. Munthir al-Ithari, the head of Najaf’s health directorate. He said one Iranian woman was among the dead and nine Iranians among the injured.
The Iraqi army said the death toll was 35, with 122 injured.
In a statement, the collective Shiite Muslim leadership, Hawza, accused Sunni loyalists of former dictator Saddam Hussein of carrying out the attack.
“We hold Takfiris (Sunni extremists) and Saddamists directly responsible for this horrible crime … at the same time we hold those who embrace terrorism in Iraq and the countries supporting it as responsible,” the statement said.
In other violence Thursday, 18 people were killed across the country, most of them in Baghdad, including four policemen who died in a gunfight with insurgents. Five bodies were also found Thursday.
The Najaf bombing occurred at about 10.30 a.m. in the Grand Market — packed with pilgrims and shoppers — in front of the Imam Ali mosque, which contains the tomb of Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali. It is one of the world’s most sacred shrines for Shiites, the minority sect of Islam.
Shakir Obeid Hassan, one of those injured, said the suicide bomber was stopped at the last police checkpoint before the shrine, which itself was untouched. All the stores facing the shrine were, however, damaged.
“Before I reached the checkpoint, only a few meters (feet) from the shrine, I heard a huge explosion. Something hit me on the head and I fell. I couldn’t hear for a while but I saw bodies and human flesh everywhere,” said Hassan, 51, from his hospital bed.
The Grand Market, sprawling in front of the shrine’s entrance, consists of a wide road with shops lining both sides, selling a variety of wares such as perfumes, gold and silver jewelry, clothes and religious souvenirs, including rings with pictures of Ali and his son Hussein.
The aftermath of the bombing presented a scene of carnage. Indistinguishable debris, boxes of perfume bottles, sandals and worry beads littered the bloodied street. Volunteers picked up human remains and washed away the thick pools of blood.
It was the worst attack in the twin cities of Najaf and Kut since the July 18 bombing of another Shiite shrine in Kut that killed 53 people. That attack was claimed by a group affiliated with al-Qaida.
Najaf, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad, is a major pilgrim destination for Shiites around the world, especially from neighboring Iran, which is predominantly Shiite like Iraq.
Najaf was the scene of heavy fighting in 2004 between U.S. forces and the Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, until the Shiite clerical hierarchy convinced the militiamen to give up.
Since then the city had been tightly controlled by police and Shiite guards, including former militiamen. The city is considered the world center of Shiite theology. The late Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini lived for years in exile in Najaf and Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, studied there.
Generations of tensions between Shiites and Sunnis turned into bloodshed after a Feb. 22 bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra. Extremists among both communities have been embroiled in tit-for-tat attacks since then, fueling fears that Iraq was on the verge of civil war.
The Shiite Endowment, which is responsible for Shiite shrines in Iraq, urged people not to be incited.
The attack shows “blind hatred and insistence on blasphemy,” the endowment said in a statement, and called on people “to remain united” to thwart sectarianism.
Thursday’s blast came in the backdrop of a clandestine statement dated July 2006 being circulated in Najaf, ostensibly by Sunni extremists.
The statement by the Arab Socialist Baath Party slams Shiite politicians such as Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim and al-Sadr.
“Three bleak years have passed and our country has been going backward,” the statement said, referring to the March 2003 ouster of Saddam. “Now you have the Jews and the Masonic turbans from the al-Hakims, the al-Sadrs and those who toe their line.”
Sectarian clashes have largely occurred in the Baghdad area, where about 1,500 violent deaths were reported last month, a dramatic rise from about 1,000 deaths in January. Most of the deaths were believed to be the result of sectarian feuding.
The bloodshed has dashed U.S. hopes for an early drawdown in the 127,000-member U.S. military force here. Instead, the U.S. military is rushing about 12,000 American and Iraqi soldiers to Baghdad.
Iraq’s National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie announced Thursday that Iraqi police arrested 20 al-Qaida members and killed one around the country in the past few days.