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140 Die in Multiple Attacks Near Shi'ite Shrines in Iraq - 2004-03-02

Iraqi Shi'ite and Sunni leaders have jointly condemned the attacks in Karbala and Baghdad. The Iraqi Governing Council has declared three days of national mourning. At least 140 people were killed and several hundred more wounded in the multiple explosions near shrines where Shi'ite pilgrims had gathered to celebrate the last day of Ashura. The Iraqi police have apprehended one suspect in the Iraqi capital and six in Karbala.

Council member Adnan Pachachi says any attacks aimed at dividing Iraq will not deter efforts to forge Iraqi unity. "It is important that our Iraqi people should be calm, should be patient, and should continue their national unity and to make sure that the enemies of Iraq will not have the opportunity to inflict harm on our people," said Mr. Pachachi.

The deadly explosions in Karbala and Baghdad ripped through crowds of Shi'ite pilgrims as they gathered to celebrate one of the holiest days in Shi'ite Islam.

Angry survivors outside the shrines ranted against U.S. coalition forces complaining they were not providing enough protection. Some threw stones at American soldiers and Iraqi police at the scenes of bloodshed.

Council member Mowaffik al Rubaie, himself a Shi'ite Muslim, told reporters that U.S. commanders had offered to coordinate security at the holy sites during the holiday celebrations.

"They were in near contact trying to discuss all the details concerning the ceremonies," he said. "Regarding the security issues, we always insisted that the best solution is that Iraqis themselves take in charge the security question, and that's what we are doing and we think we can achieve this by the end of June."

U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmit says the attacks in the center and outskirts of Karbala were caused by a suicide bomber, mortars and hidden explosives. Six suspects have been apprehended. He says the attacks in Baghdad were also carried out by suicide bombers.

"The Iraqi police service reports that three suicide bombers detonated explosives in the vicinity of the mosque and a fourth suicide bomber wearing a explosive vest was apprehended," said the general, adding that the attacks were well coordinated.

"This was not a pick up team, not an organization that just started," said General Kimmit. "It clearly shows signs of a well-coordinated organization with some level of sophistication."

No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

But last month, U.S. forces said they had intercepted a message by an al-Qaida terrorist urging suicide bombings against Shi'ite Iraqis to provoke civil war.

General Kimmit says there could be more attacks as Iraq moves toward the June hand-over of power to an interim government and the first-year anniversary of the March war that ousted Saddam Hussein.