BAGHDAD, Iraq, (AP) – At least 13 people were killed Tuesday after a bomb left in a garbage can struck Shiites during ceremonies marking Ashoura in a town near the Iranian border, police said. At least 39 were wounded.
About an hour later, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the entrance of a Shiite mosque in Mandali, a predominantly Shiite city also near the Iranian border. At least 12 people were killed and 40 wounded in that attack, police said.
The explosion that killed 13 hit as scores of Shiites were gathered in downtown Khanaqin performing rituals on the holiest day on the Shiite Islamic calendar, a commemoration of the 7th-century death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. The major religious festival culminates on Tuesday.
Police Maj. Idriss Mohammed said at least 13 people were killed and 39 were wounded, adding that most of the victims were Shiite Kurds. Most Kurds are Sunni but a minority are Shiite.
Khanaqin is 87 miles northeast of Baghdad close to the Iranian border.
Meanwhile, the Iraqi army said it killed the leader of the heavily armed cult during a fierce gunbattle on Monday aimed at foiling an attack on leading Shiite clerics and pilgrims in the city of Najaf who were celebrating Ashoura.
Senior Iraqi security officers said three gunmen of “the Soldiers of Heaven” cult were captured in Najaf after renting a hotel room in front of the office of Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, with plans to attack it.
The 24-hour battle was ultimately won by Iraqi troops supported by U.S. and British jets and American ground forces. But the ability of a splinter group little known in Iraq to rally hundreds of heavily armed fighters was a reminder of the potential for chaos and havoc emerging seemingly out of nowhere.
Members of the group, which included women and children, planned to disguise themselves as pilgrims and kill as many leading clerics as possible, said Maj. Gen. Othman al-Ghanemi, the Iraqi commander in charge of the Najaf region.
The cult’s leader, wearing jeans, a coat and a hat and carrying two pistols, was among those who died in the battle, al-Ghanemi said. Although he went by several aliases, he was identified as Dia Abdul Zahra Kadim, 37, from Hillah, south of Baghdad, according to Abdul-Hussein Abtan, deputy governor of Najaf. Kadim had been detained twice in the past few years, Abtan said.
The U.S. military said Iraqi security forces were sent to the area Sunday after receiving a tip that gunmen were joining pilgrims headed to Najaf for Ashoura.
The gunmen had put up tents in fields lined with date palm groves surrounding Najaf, 100 miles south of the capital. They planned to launch their attack Monday night when Ashoura celebrations would be getting under way, the Iraqi security officers told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose the information.
In the battle to foil the attack on the pilgrims, Iraqi and U.S. forces faced off against more than 200 gunmen with small arms fire, rocket-propelled grenades and hand grenades, the U.S. military said. The battle took place about 12 miles northeast of Najaf.
While U.S. and British forces provided support, President Bush said the battle was an indication that Iraqis were beginning to take control. “My first reaction on this report from the battlefield is that the Iraqis are beginning to show me something,” he told National Public Radio on Monday.
The U.S. military said more than 100 gunmen were captured but it did not say how many were killed. Iraqi defense officials, by contrast, said 200 militants were killed, 60 wounded and at least 120 captured.
“It seems most likely that this was Shiite-on-Shiite violence, with millenarian cultists making an attempt to march on Najaf during the chaos of the ritual season of Muharram,” Juan Cole, an Islamic scholar at the University of Michigan, said on his Web site. “The dangers of Shiite-on-Shiite violence in Iraq are substantial, as this episode demonstrated.”
But Iraqi officials said Sunni extremists and Saddam Hussein loyalists were helping the cult in their bid to ambush Shiite worshippers.
“We have information from our intelligence sources that indicated the leader of this group had links with the former regime elements since 1993,” said Ahmed al-Fatlawi said, a member of the Najaf provincial council.
Meanwhile, gunmen on Tuesday ambushed a bus carrying Shiite pilgrims marking Ashoura, killing at least seven people and wounding seven, police said.
The armed men drove by the bus in two cars and opened fire on the occupants, then sped away, police said. The attack occurred about 10:30 a.m. in the western district of Hay al-Amil, a religiously mixed area.
Also Tuesday, a U.S. Marine was killed in fighting in Anbar province, west of Baghdad, while a soldier died in an accident elsewhere, the military said.
The Marine assigned to Multi-National Forces-West died Monday of wounds sustained due to enemy action in the insurgent stronghold, which stretches from Baghdad to the borders with Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
A 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) Soldier was killed in an accident when a Humvee rolled over northwest of Nasiriyah, 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.
The troops’ identities were not released pending notification of relatives.
The deaths raises to at least 3,086 members of the U.S. military have died since the Iraq war started in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.