Thousands of mourners attended funerals Monday for victims of the deadliest attacks in Iraq since July. More than 180 were wounded in the bombings.
The Sunday blasts, which occurred about an hour apart and appeared designed to inflict the greatest number of civilian casualties possible, tore through a Najaf funeral procession and a main bus station in the nearby Shiite city of Karbala. The interim government accused Sunni militants of carrying out the attacks with an aim of derailing the country’s key elections scheduled for Jan 30.
After funerals in Najaf Monday, provincial governor Adnan al-Zurufi told a news conference that 50 suspected insurgents have been arrested and are undergoing interrogation. He said some are from Najaf and others from outside the city. At least one is a citizen of another Arab country, he said.
“The police arrested some elements who confessed that they have links with the Syrian intelligence … and a person who confessed he had links with Iranian intelligence since 1995,” said police chief Ghalib al-Jazaeri, according to the Associated Press.
Last week Iraq Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi accused Syria of harboring senior officials from the ousted regime of Saddam Hussein. Iraq’s Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan has accused both Iran and Syria of supporting terrorism in Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi officials have warned of a surge in violence ahead of the Jan 30 election to choose a 275-member parliament. Shiites, who make up around 60 percent of Iraq’s population, have been strong supporters of the election, which they expect will reverse the longtime domination of Iraq by the Sunni Arab minority.
Some Sunni leaders have threatened to boycott the elections to protest the U.S.-led offensive in the predominantly Sunni city of Fallujah, an insurgent stronghold until the assault. In a message passed on by lawyers who visited him in his cell last week, Saddam denounced the elections as an American plot.
Meanwhile, the head of the national electoral commission appealed to security forces to safeguard election officials after three were shot to death in a brazen attack Sunday by dozens of guerillas operating openly in Baghdad.
Authorities in Najaf banned cars from entering the downtown area that houses the Imam Ali shrine to prevent future bombings, al-Zurufi said Monday.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has declared that voting in the elections is a religious duty for all Shiites. Asked if Sunday’s attack had targeted al-Sistani, who lives close to the site of the blast, al-Zurufi said, “We have had information for a long time that his eminence, Ayatollah al-Sistani, is a possible target but we are taking all measures to protect him.”
“These attacks aim to destroy the country and the holy sites. This is terrorism against Shiites,” said Fadhil Salman, the owner of the Ghufran Hotel in Najaf. “They want to foil the elections, but this won’t deter us.”
The movement of Moqtada al-Sadr, a young cleric whose Mahdi Army has twice led uprisings against the coalition forces, condemned the attack and dismissed the prospect of sectarian strife.
“It is clear that there are some trying to impose conflict and civil war in Iraq,” said Ali Yassiri, a top aide to al-Sadr. “Deceiving Iraqis is difficult. … These attacks will result in nothing but insistence on proceeding toward the Iraq of the future.”