Baghdad — As the death toll in Tuesday’s devastating bombings in Iraq continued to climb, an official said that Iraqi police and U.S. troops had detained 15 people thought connected to the attacks.
A few hours later, the president of Iraq’s Governing Council said that 271 people had been confirmed killed in the bombings of Shia shrines in Baghdad and Karbala. Another 393 were listed as injured.
The Iraqi estimate was considerably higher than the tally from U.S. occupying forces, who put the number of dead at 117.
The confusion reflected the chaos Tuesday, when suicide attackers set off bombs and explosives, apparently on wooden pushcarts, among thousands of pilgrims who were gathered in the two cities for the holiest day of the Shia calendar, the mourning ceremony of Ashoura.
The attacks forced the delay of a milestone in the path toward the U.S. handover of power to the Iraqis on June 30 — the planned signing Thursday of an interim constitution agreed to by council members this week. Iraq’s top U.S. administrator Paul Bremer said the signing would be delayed as the Governing Council declared a three-day mourning period.
It appeared other attacks had been planned. Iraqi officials said suicide bombers were arrested in the southern city of Basra and in police in oil-rich Kirkuk found a bomb with 10 kilograms of TNT alongside a road where Shiites had planned to march. Anwar Amin, the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps chief in the city, said Wednesday that police defused the bomb and the march was cancelled at the request of police.
The coalition official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 15 people were detained in Karbala after the blasts, nine of them in Iraqi custody. The others, being held by coalition forces, included four Farsi speakers thought to be Iranians, the official said.
An estimated 100,000 Iranians were believed to have come to Iraq for Ashoura, and many Iranians are present around the holy shrines throughout the year.
U.S. officials and Iraqi leaders named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian militant believed linked to al-Qaeda, as a “prime suspect” for the attacks, saying he is seeking to spark a Sunni-Shiite civil war in Iraq to wreck U.S. plans to hand over power to the Iraqis on June 30.
Iraq’s U.S.-appointed Governing Council pleaded with Iraqis to remain united — an attempt to avert reprisals.
Tuesday’s attacks fanned the Shiites’ fears and anger at a time when their leaders are pressing for more power in a future government after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein. Some outraged Shiites lashed out at U.S. forces. Iraq’s most powerful Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Hussein al-Sistani — who holds enormous influence among Shiites — blamed the Americans for not providing security.
U.S. and Iraqi officials, meanwhile, have been trying to get a clearer picture of how the well-organized attacks were carried out at Baghdad’s Kazimiya shrine — the biggest Shiite holy site in the capital — and at the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala, 80 kilometres to the south.
Two or three suicide bombers detonated the explosives strapped to their bodies at Kazimiya, the coalition official said. Earlier reports that a fourth bomber at Kazimiya was captured after his explosives failed to go off turned out to be incorrect, the official said.
In Karbala, there was apparently one suicide bomber and several sets of explosives brought to the site on wooden carts, frequently used to bring supplies to pilgrims or ferry the elderly between holy sites, the official said. Most of the casualties were caused by the cart-borne bombs, he said.