KERBALA, Iraq, (Reuters) – Iraq’s prime minister flew to the holy city of Kerbala on Wednesday and declared order had been restored after gunbattles among Shi’ite factions killed 52 people and forced hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to flee. But the violence among Shi’ites spread overnight, with gunmen attacking the offices of a powerful Shi’ite party in at least five cities and setting many of them ablaze.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his troops had restored calm to the city and blamed “outlawed armed criminal gangs from the remnants of the buried Saddam regime” for the violence. He ordered army Major-General Salih al-Maliki, the head of the Kerbala command centre, to be sacked and investigated in the wake of the chaos, a defence ministry spokesman said. “The situation in Kerbala is under control after military reinforcements arrived and police and military special forces have spread throughout the city to purge those killers and criminals,” the prime minister said in a statement.
Sporadic and occasionally sustained gunfire could still be heard after dawn in the city, coming from the area around the revered shrines of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, focal point of Shi’ite celebrations on Tuesday.
Sirens of police cars and ambulances wailed and police loudspeakers ordered pilgrims out of the ancient centre of the city, 110 km (68 miles) south of Baghdad.
The fighting on Tuesday killed 52 people and wounded 206, a senior security official in Baghdad said. The general director of Kerbala’s al-Hussein hospital said its morgue had received 34 bodies and treated 239 wounded.
An official at the shrines’ media office, Ali Kadhum, said the two shrines had been slightly damaged, with bullets hitting their domes and minarets and an electric power station ruined.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims had gathered to commemorate the 9th century birth of Imam Mohammad al-Mahdi, the last of 12 imams that Shi’ites revere as saints. The pilgrimage, like other annual rites, had become a show of force for a Shi’ite community repressed under former leader Saddam Hussein. “Do we have a government? There is no Iraqi government, because pilgrims were killed in Kerbala between the two shrines,” said Qassim Salman, one of thousands of fleeing pilgrims who reached Baghdad in buses.
The battles appeared to pit the two biggest Shi’ite groups against each other — followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army militia, and the rival Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), which controls police in much of the south.
Police said gunmen torched SIIC buildings overnight in Baghdad’s Kadhimiya neighbourhood, in the holy city of Kufa, in Iskandariya and in the al-Hamza district of Babil province. Another SIIC headquarters was struck by rocket-propelled grenades in the centre of the main Shi’ite holy city, Najaf.
Police said five people were killed in clashes between the rival militias in Baghdad and six were killed in the attack on the SIIC building in al-Hamza.
One of Sadr’s senior aides, Ahmed al-Shaibani, said Sadr had called for calm among his followers and blamed the shrine guards for provoking the army and police in Kerbala.
During Tuesday’s clashes, a Reuters witness saw gunmen roaming the streets armed with heavy machineguns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, batons and swords, beating pilgrims, including women.
By morning, some Baghdad streets were closed in what appeared to be a partial curfew in the capital.
Police dragged razor wire barricades across Baghdad’s Jumhuriya Bridge, a main bridge across the Tigris River. Buses returning from the south were packed with pilgrims, some clinging to the roofs.
Washington’s 160,000 troops in Iraq have focused mainly on Sunni Arab and mixed areas of the country to defeat Sunni Arab insurgents and stamp out sectarian violence. But the prospect of war between Shi’ite factions in the south, where U.S. forces have little or no presence, is a separate, growing threat.