At least 18 people were killed and dozens wounded after two car bombs exploded in the Shi’ite holy city of Karbala, Iraq. The blasts appeared to target Shi’ite pilgrims during a major religious celebration.
Thick crowds of Shi’ite pilgrims filled Karbala to mourn Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and to chant dirges in his honor. Eyewitnesses say the two car bombs went off hours apart amid the teeming throngs of worshippers.
Iraqi government TV is reporting 9 million Shi’ite pilgrims have descended on Karbala to mark the 40th day celebration after Ashoura, which marks the death of Hussein. The TV showed hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walking on foot from one holy site to the next.
Vehicles are not allowed inside the holy city of Karbala to prevent car bombs from targeting pilgrims. The blasts occurred in areas where buses are allowed to drop passengers off. Thousands of government troops are deployed across the city to prevent violence.
Karbala provincial council head Mohammed Moussawi insists security was tight, and police and security forces took preventive measures to keep pilgrims safe.
Moussawi said the provincial council ordered security forces in Karbala to carry out preventive raids on suspected terrorist lairs in the holy city, as well as in outlying regions. He stressed that more than 45 terrorist suspects were arrested in those raids.
The explosions were just the latest in a series of car bomb attacks against mostly Shi’ite targets in Iraq. Iraqi TV reported five car bombs also exploded in Baghdad, but did not indicate if Shi’ites were the main targets there.
Last week, three suicide bombs targeting Shi’ite pilgrims created havoc and left more than 50 people dead on two main roads leading to Karbala.
Analyst Marina Ottaway of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace emphasizes that Iraqi Sunnis are unhappy about the power shift in the country away from their community to the Shi’ites.
"There are tremendous tensions in Iraq," said Ottaway. "Part of it is there has been a shift in power, that Sunnis that used to be in a dominant position in the country... no doubt that Sunnis felt that they were very much in control, (and) now they are much less in the formation of this government. No doubt that it is a government in which Shia organizations dominate, in particular it is becoming clearer and clearer that (Prime Minister Nouri al) Maliki is going to be the dominant power…"
Ottaway adds that despite the tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ites over recent political developments, she does not believe a new sectarian war is brewing. She said the violence is the responsibility of small groups that are radicalized, but she underlined "it is certainly not the entire Sunni population that is involved."