BAGHDAD – Fighting erupted Tuesday between rival Shiite militias in Karbala during a religious festival, claiming 51 lives and forcing officials to abort the celebrations and order up to 1 million Shiite pilgrims to leave the southern city.
Security officials said Mahdi Army gunmen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-
Sadr fired on guards around two shrines protected by the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Residents of Karbala contacted by telephone said snipers were firing on Iraqi security forces from rooftops. Explosions and the rattle of automatic weapons fire could be
heard during telephone calls to reporters in the city 50 miles south of Baghdad.
In addition to the deaths, security officials said at least 247 people were wounded, including women and children.
The clashes appeared to be part of a power struggle among Shiite groups in the
sect’s southern Iraqi heartland, which includes the bulk of the country’s vast oil wealth.
It’s naturally a little hard to achieve stable self-government — which requires restraint and compromise — when everyone professes a divine mandate to take everything by force.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf said entrances and exits to Karbala “have been secured and more forces are on the way from other provinces.” Officials said buses were sent to evacuate pilgrims from the city, which includes some of
the world’s most sacred Shiite shrines.
Gunfights also broke out Tuesday between Mahdi militiamen and followers of the
Supreme Council in at least two Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad, police said. And extra police took up positions in the center of another Shiite city, Diwaniyah, after gunmen fired on a mosque associated with the Supreme Council, police said.
The trouble started in Karbala late Monday as tens of thousands of Shiites were
streaming into the city for the Shabaniyah festival marking the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi,
the 12th and last Shiite imam who disappeared in the 9th century. Devout Shiites believe he
will return to Earth to restore peace and harmony.
Scuffles broke out between police and pilgrims as the crowd tried to push through the security checkpoints near the Imam al-Hussein mosque, the focal point of the celebrations. At least five people were killed, police said.
Early Tuesday, crowds of angry pilgrims chanting religious slogans surged through the streets, attacking police and mosque guards, witnesses said. Two ambulances were set ablaze, sending a huge column of black smoke over the city.