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Iraqi Shiites Say Blasts Aimed at Inciting Sectarian Conflict


Iraqi authorities in the Shiite holy city of Najaf say they have detained at least 50 people in connection with Sunday's deadly car bombings in Najaf and nearby Karbala. The two blasts killed about 66 people and wounded around 175. Shiite clerics and political leaders say the attacks were aimed at sparking sectarian conflict before next month's election. They are urging their followers to resist the provocation.

Provincial governor Adnan al-Zurufi reported the arrests, but it is not clear what kind of evidence links the men to the attack. The governor says one of them is a citizen of another Arab country, while the rest are Iraqis.

Both the bomb in Najaf and the one a few hours earlier in Karbala exploded near shrines that are among the holiest sites in Shiite Islam.

On the same day, gunmen dragged three election workers from their car and shot them dead at point-blank range in central Baghdad.

The six-week campaign period leading up to the election for an Iraqi interim assembly is just beginning. Iraqi and U.S. officials have predicted an upsurge in violence before the poll.

Shiite religious leaders and politicians have condemned the deadly blasts in their holy cities, but have urged their followers to remain calm.

The head of a leading Shiite political party, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, blamed the bombings on followers of ousted Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and on religious extremists.

"We strongly condemn the crimes that happened in Karbala and Najaf, which targeted the innocent," he said. "We believe the aim was to create sectarian strife in Iraq and obstruct the electoral process, but the will of the Iraqi people will not give the terrorists that chance."

Mr. al-Hakim heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a party with close ties to Iran that has formed a coalition with another key Shiite group, the Dawa Party. The alliance is expected to do well in the upcoming election.

Many in Iraq's majority Shiites have embraced the elections as a chance to take power after decades of oppression under the rule of Saddam Hussein, a largely secular Sunni Muslim. But many Sunnis are skeptical of the process, and some influential Sunni groups have called for a boycott.

Iraqi election officials have vowed that the election will be held on schedule at the end of January, despite the violence.

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