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Iraq: Shiite pilgrims targeted on holy day as 1 dies in roadside bombing
Shiite pilgrims gather in the holy city of Karbala, Iraq, Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008 during Arbaeen religious holiday to mark the 40th day following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, one Shiism's major figures, who is buried here. - photo by Associated Press
    BAGHDAD — Shiite pilgrims headed to a major religious gathering were again targeted by extremists Wednesday when a roadside bomb detonated near a bus in Baghdad, killing one traveler, police said.
    The blast came just days after a flurry of attacks on a massive pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad. Shiites from across Iraq and some foreign visitors are marking Arbaeen, the end of a 40-day mourning period following the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam’s most revered figures.
    The U.S. military blamed Sunni-led al-Qaida in Iraq for the earlier killings, which seemed aimed at provoking sectarian violence. Shiite religious festivals have been targeted repeatedly in the past few years.
    With the latest fatality, at least 64 people have been slain in assaults targeting pilgrims. The worst of the attacks occurred Sunday when a suicide bomber detonated in a roadside refreshment tent packed with worshippers taking a break as they walked to Karbala. At least 56 people were killed.
    Wednesday’s slaying occurred in eastern Baghdad when the bomb went off next to the bus, according to a police officer who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
    Associated Press Television News footage showed the bus with its front, right tire blown out and pockmarks along the side, presumably from shrapnel.
    A few hours later, a mortar round slammed into a street in the same neighborhood, killing one civilian and wounding three others, police said. It was not possible to determine whether the two attacks were connected.
    In Karbala, the rituals surrounding Arbaeen were reaching their peak. Iraqi and U.S. authorities have said at least 8 million people will join in the ceremonies, under the eye of 40,000 troops, snipers and plainclothes security officers — plus air support monitoring the outskirts of town to prevent rocket attacks.
    ‘‘I feel safe when I see the security forces along the roads,’’ 50-year-old pilgrim Umm Ali said. ‘‘That makes me forget the fear despite the crowds and the extensive searching operations.’’
    The ceremonies center on expressions of grief over the death of Imam Hussein, who was martyred in a seventh century battle and is buried in Karbala, as is his half-brother.
    There were numerous processions Wednesday including one with a camel caravan re-enacting Hussein’s journey to the area from Arabia.
    APTN footage showed processions of black-clad men, some barefoot, marching in time and flagellating themselves with chains to the beat of drums. Young boys joined in the ritual, some dirtying their faces with mud in another sign of sorrow. Women stood or sat nearby, tapping their hearts or faces to the drumbeat.
    ‘‘I came 10 days ahead of time to serve the pilgrims of Imam Hussein, defying all circumstances and terrorist acts,’’ said 62-year-old pilgrim Mohammed Hussein.
    In the troubled city of Mosul, 225 miles northwest of Baghdad, two civilian bystanders were killed and another wounded Wednesday when a car bomb missed a passing police patrol, a police officer said.
    In a separate incident, two gunmen — including a man carrying a suicide belt — were killed in a firefight with an Iraqi army patrol in western Mosul, Khalid Abdul-Sattar, the spokesman for police in Ninevah province where Mosul is located.
    Violence has dropped substantially across Iraq in the last six months as the U.S. has boosted troop levels, former al-Qaida fighters with American backing have switched allegiances and the powerful Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia, has declared a cease-fire.
    But Wednesday’s toll pushed the total number of Iraqi deaths to at least 712, compared with 610 in January, when violence reached a low not seen since the end of 2005.
    U.S. military spokesman Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner offered an upbeat assessment of the progress against insurgent forces, however. He said that between Jan. 7 and Feb. 22, more than 2,700 insurgents had been detained and 1,400 weapons caches had been seized.
    Also Wednesday, Iraq’s presidential council rejected a measure setting up provincial elections, sending it back to parliament in the latest setback to U.S.-backed national reconciliation efforts.
    The panel is composed of President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, Shiite Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi and Sunni Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi.
    Abdul-Mahdi objected to the measure and was supported by the Kurds, according to lawmakers who attended the council meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.
    The sticking point was control of the provincial governor’s offices. A provision in the measure allows the Iraqi prime minister to fire a provincial governor, but Abdul-Mahdi’s bloc wants that power to rest with the provincial councils, or legislatures, where his party has a strong base of support around the country, the lawmakers said.
    The White House said it does not believe the setback for the provincial election law has dealt a fatal blow to the measure. White House press secretary Dana Perino said the Bush administration would have liked the law to move forward without complications, but added: ‘‘This is democracy at work.’’
    In a separate development, a two-day discussion between American and Iraqi officials on economic cooperation began in Baghdad.
    Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh said that inflation in Iraq was down to 10 percent at the beginning of this year from 32 percent at the start of 2007.
    But, Saleh said, ‘‘there are still real blocks and handicaps facing us in implementing our economic policies, namely terrorism.’’
    Associated Press writer Sinan Salaheddin contributed to this report.

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