KUFA, Iraq, (Reuters) – A suicide car bomber blasted two coaches carrying Iranian pilgrims outside a Shi’ite Muslim shrine in Iraq at dawn on Thursday, killing 12 people and wounding 41, police and health officials said.
The attack came a day after the U.S. military warned that al Qaeda’s new leader in Iraq could order new car bombings after the killing of his predecessor Abu Musab al-Zarqawi a month ago.
The bomber drove his car between the two Iranian coaches as they arrived at the Maithem al-Tamar shrine in Kufa, a religious centre on the outskirts of the main Shi’ite holy city of Najaf, 160 km (100 miles) south of Baghdad, police said.
The burnt-out wrecks of the vehicles lay in the street. Three women in distinctive Iranian dress lay dead. Smoke rose from the charred remains of the bomber’s car.
Police said several Iraqi children, who make a living wheeling invalid pilgrims in carts at the shrine, were also caught in the blast. Many sleep there, waiting for business.
Eight of the dead were Iranians, three of those women, the head of Najaf’s health service, Munther al-Athari, said. Men, women and children were among the 41 wounded, 22 of whom were Iranian, he added. Earlier, doctors put the death toll at 13.
Shi’ite worshippers have been targeted before in sectarian attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents and the U.S. military warned on Wednesday of a possible increase in car bomb attacks after the nomination of Abu Ayyub al-Masri to head al Qaeda in Iraq.
Masri, named by Osama bin Laden last week, has a reputation as an organiser of car bombings. One killed over 60 people at a market in a Shi’ite area of Baghdad on Saturday, the deadliest for 3 months. Another killed six in the capital on Wednesday.
Since the fall in 2003 of Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni Muslim-dominated government fought Shi’ite Iran in the 1980s, large numbers of Iranians have travelled to holy sites around Najaf, the main centre for the Shi’ite branch of Islam.
Many Sunni Arabs view warm ties between Iraq’s new majority Shi’ite leaders and non-Arab Iran with deep suspicion.
Tehran urged better security for pilgrims and blamed the United States for the violence gripping Iraq: “The wrongful approach of the American occupiers of Iraq and their lack of responsibility has led to an increase of violence and terrorism in Iraq,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamidreza Asefi said.
Saddam, who is due back in court on Monday to hear his defence sum up his denial of crimes against humanity, began a hunger strike in prison, his lead lawyer Khalil al-Dulaimi told Reuters. His U.S. military jailers could not confirm that.
Saddam and others were demanding an investigation into the killing last month of a lawyer who was the third member of their defence team killed since the trial began in October.
Another Sunni Arab jurist unrelated to the case was shot dead in west Baghdad on Thursday, police said. Barred from office by U.S. order because he served under Saddam, former judge Saleh Hassan Yass al-Awsi was prominent in a group calling for parliament to revise bans on Saddam-era officials.
Kufa is also a base for many supporters of the radical Shi’ite cleric and militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr. His Mehdi Army fighters, along with other Shi’ite armed groups, are accused by Sunnis of sectarian violence against their community.
Bloodshed, especially since the bombing of a major Shi’ite shrine at Samarra in February, has pitched Iraq toward all-out sectarian civil war.
The seven-week-old, U.S.-backed national unity coalition government of Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is trying to avert that and launched a national reconciliation drive last week to try to win over insurgents to the political process.
Though still heavily dependent on U.S. military support, the government’s ties to Washington have been put under pressure this week by public outcry over a rape and murder case in which U.S. soldiers are accused of killing a family near Baghdad.
The latest in a handful of possible serious crimes being investigated by the military, the rape element of the Mahmudiya incident in March makes it potentially more damaging as U.S. and Iraqi leaders look to put their relationship on a new footing following the formation of a fully empowered government.
Maliki called on Wednesday for an independent inquiry and a review of foreign troops’ immunity from Iraqi law, which he said had “emboldened” soldiers to commit crimes.