Violence Mars Shiite Holiday in Iraq

Baghdad, Iraq — Bombs and a rocket attack killed at least nine worshippers in northern Iraq on Saturday during the holiest celebration of Shiite Islam, as hundreds of thousands of bloody penitents across Iraq honored the martyrdom of their revered saint.

Despite the violence in the north — and clashes in the south with a Shiite cult that was apparently plotting to disrupt the Ashoura celebrations — the culmination of the 10-day observance was peaceful compared with previous years, when hundreds have died in Sunni Arab mortar attacks or car bombings.

South of Baghdad, authorities raised the death toll from clashes in two predominantly Shiite cities to at least 72, including security forces, civilians and gunmen, but said the standoff with the Soldiers of Heaven cult ended when troops stormed a mosque and rousted followers who were holed up inside.

Three suicide bombers also targeted a police station in Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province west of Baghdad. Guards killed one attacker, but two others detonated their explosives at the entrance, killing at least five officers, authorities said.

The former insurgent stronghold has become relatively peaceful as Sunni tribal leaders and officials joined forces with the U.S. military to fight al-Qaida in Iraq.

The terror network has struck back against the members of so-called awakening councils, and a series of recent high-profile attacks has eroded the security gains of the previous six months, when violence dropped across much of the country.

Two bombs hidden under trash struck an Ashoura procession in the city of Kirkuk on Saturday, killing at least two, police Brig. Gen. Burhan Tayeb Taha said.

Kirkuk, 180 miles north of Baghdad, has seen a rise in violence as militants have fled crackdowns elsewhere and ethnic tensions over the status of the oil-rich city.

A rocket attack also struck a busy market in the northern city of Tal Afar, killing at least seven people. Mayor Najim Abdullah said the victims were gathering after performing the Ashoura rituals.

One Sunni resident who identified himself as Abu Ismail said he was on his roof when he heard an explosion and saw several Shiites gathered below fall to the ground.

"I feel sad for the innocent people lost today," he said.

In another attack targeting Shiites, a bomb hidden in a black trash bag exploded near a popular restaurant in Baghdad's Sadr City, killing at least two people, a police officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.

Provincial Gov. Aqil al-Khazali estimated that the main procession in the holy city of Karbala drew some 2 million pilgrims, including hundreds from Iran, Pakistan, India and other regional countries, and no violence was reported. Some 30,000 troops were deployed in the city, including reinforcements from Baghdad.

Ashoura observances mark the seventh century death of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, in a battle near Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, that enshrined the Sunni-Shiite schism.

It is essentially a mournful occasion, but Iraq's majority Shiites have used it to showcase their dominance after decades of oppression under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, turning out in large numbers to mark the occasion despite the threat of insurgent attacks.

Men wearing black or white robes danced in circles and chanted as they moved in unison toward the golden domed mosques of Imam Hussein and his half brother Imam Abbas.

They pounded their chests, slashed their heads and beat their bloodied foreheads with the flat sides of swords and knives.

Abbas Mohammed, wearing a black shirt and pants to symbolize his grief over Hussein's death, traveled from Baghdad to Karbala.

"I came to Karbala in defiance of terrorists and difficulties," the 41-year-old health ministry employee said.

Naseer Mohammed, a 35-year-old Karbala resident, spoke with his face bloodied after he cut his forehead with a sword as part of the rituals.

"I do not feel any pain despite the blood. The security measures were little bit excessive and they create delays and difficulties for us, yet they make us feel safer," he said.

Basra police chief Maj. Gen. Abdul-Jalil Khalaf said at least 44 people were killed in Iraq's second-largest city — seven officers, two civilians and 35 gunmen — while dozens more were wounded and 100 gunmen were arrested.

Video broadcast on Iraqi state TV showed several dead or wounded men lying on bloodstained streets in Basra after the fighting with members of the Soldiers of Heaven cult.

Nine blindfolded detainees sat hunched over on a curb as men held a sign behind them that said "criminal investigation department in Basra."

Aziz Khazim Alwan, the governor of Dhi Qar, of which Nasiriyah is the capital, said at least 28 people were killed in that city, about 200 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Alwan said the standoff ended when Iraqi security forces stormed a mosque sheltering followers of the group, discovering yellow headbands signifying allegiance to the cult and explosives.

Alwan said the militants had targeted Ashoura worshippers but police had intervened to thwart the plot by the radical Shiite group, which last year mounted a ferocious attack after Iraqi security forces raided its stronghold near Najaf to foil an alleged plot to slaughter pilgrims and leading clerics during Ashoura.

The group's bloody aims are seen as a bid to bring the return of the "Hidden Imam" — also known as the Mahdi — a descendant of Muhammad who disappeared as a child in the ninth century. Shiites believe he will return one day to bring justice.