Hellish Blast on Holy Day

The Ashoura Massacre in Baghdad and Karbala made Tuesday, March 2, Iraq’s bloodiest day since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The victims – 170 dead, more than 500 injured – were Iraqi Shiite Muslims. Three million had turned out for the first time in three decades to observe the Ashoura festival commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, grandson of Muhammad, in 680.
Three blasts killed 58 people in Baghdad in and around the Kazimiya shrine and 9 explosions, caused by bomb cars, backed by mortars, grenades and rockets, murdered more than 100 in the shrine city of Karbala, 70 miles to the south. According to some reports, 50-60 Iranian pilgrims died in a mortar explosion at the gates of Karbala.
As Shiite men, earlier flagellants, lined up at the hospitals to donate blood for the many wounded, the words of two world leaders reverberated through the stricken Iraqi cities.
US President George W. Bush, addressing the one-year anniversary of the Department of Homeland Security, issued his usual message: We are relentless. We are strong. We refuse to yield. Some two-thirds of al Qaeda’s key leaders have been captured or killed. We will bring these killers to justice.
Even if factually true, this declaration is hard to credit on the same day as two extensive and complex attacks that must have been in preparation for three or four months and called for a trained unit of some 200-300 participants – commanders and intelligence and logistics experts armed with vast quantities of weapons, ammunition, explosives, grenades, rockets, vehicles and cash.
Al Qaeda designed the two assaults for killing as many people as possible by resorting to diverse methods of assault. Basra was targeted too but the driver of the bomb car was apprehended before he could cause any harm. Up to a dozen suicide bombers strapped into bomb belts penetrated Baghdad and Karbala. Vehicles crammed with explosives and driven by suicide crews entered Karbala. Two were captured before they went off, as were bomb-belted suicide killers in Baghdad who had entered the country through Syria. In both towns, gun squads armed also with grenades, were planted at the shrines to shoot into the panic-stricken masses and kill the wounded where they fell before they were rescued. In Karbala, where the death toll was highest, the fundamentalist group for the first time also deployed rocket crews at vantage points outside the cities with mobile launchers.
The mobile crews and shooters had two functions: 1. To fire rockets into the crowds gathered at the mosques in a second wave after the suicide bombers. 2. To trap people in headlong flight from the explosions as they rushed out of the city.
The American commander of Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, and several Governing Council members pointed the finger at al Qaeda operative Abu Musab Zarqawi, on whose head a $10m bounty has been placed by US forces. DEBKA-Net-Weekly first brought Zarqawi to the general notice in the winter of 2000, pointing up his links with al Qaeda and Iraq. Operating now from a base in the north Iranian town of Mashad, the Jordanian-born terrorist planned his urban guerrilla-terrorist offensive with considerable skill and cunning. What he proved was that, while al Qaeda may feel America’s hand heavy on its collar – as per President Bush – it is still capable of operations on an epic scale.
debkafile‘s counter-terror sources have discovered the identity of Zarqawi’s field commander in Iraq who also directed the Ashoura operation. He isAbu Abdallah al Hassan Ben Mahmoud, chief of Ansar al Islam, which has developed into one of al Qaeda’s foremost operational arms in Iraq.
The most influential Shiite voice in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was the second leader to speak after the attacks and he candidly blamed the Americans for failing to secure Iraq’s borders.
“We put the responsibility on the occupation forces for the noticeable procrastination in controlling the borders of Iraq and preventing infiltrations,” He said and went on to criticize American authorities “for not strengthening Iraqi national forces and supplying them with the necessary equipment for doing their job.”
By implying the perpetrators of the carnage came from outside, Sistani acted to calm inflamed Shiite emotions lest they ignite sectarian warfare against fellow Iraqi Sunni Muslims. But he was primarily accusing the Americans of lax control that permitted foreign combatants, predominantly Arab and al Qaeda, to stream unrestricted into Iraq from Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and most of all from Iran and Syria.
According to debkafile‘s sources, the al Qaeda attackers captured near Baghdad’s Kazimiya shrine, when a faulty mechanism kept their explosive belts from detonating, were Syrians. This was not the first time Syrians were found taking part in terrorist activity in Iraq. Last October, Syrians drove bomb vehicles in the assault on Red Cross headquarters in Baghdad and on a row of local police stations.
Ayatollah Sistani is clearly convinced that the Bush administration’s dogged resistance to steps for making Syrian president Bashar Assad seal his border with Iraq to al Qaeda traffic leaves Iraq dangerously exposed to al Qaeda attacks. Syria is the main source of this traffic, which also comes in from Iran in the east and even Saudi Arabia in the south.
As a leader responsible for a flock of some 16 million Shiites he is deeply troubled by this unchecked menace which he blames on American dereliction – especially when the Tuesday massacre was staged one day after he instructed the Shiite clerical members of the Iraqi Governing Council to approve a compromise draft constitution mediated by US administrator Paul Bremer.

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