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Sniper attacks kill 20 Shi'ite pilgrims

Sectarian violence also wounds 300

BAGHDAD -- Sunni Arab insurgents armed with rifles and mortars killed 20 pilgrims and wounded 300 others who thronged the capital yesterday for one of Shi'ite Islam's most important holidays, authorities said.

But in a sign of just how routine the intense sectarian bloodshed in the capital has become, the US military reported ``relatively little violence." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki touted the ``success" of Iraqi security forces ``in preventing the terrorists from killing innocents."

The carnage took place despite a weekend ban on car traffic and months of planning by Iraqi security forces to control an estimated 1 million pilgrims who flocked to the city to commemorate the death of Imam Moussa Kadhim, a revered figure in Shi'ite Islam. About 1,000 people were killed during the holiday last year when rumors of a suicide bomber triggered a stampede.

The killings also highlighted the growing animosity between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims that many fear is causing Iraq to slide into a full-blown civil war.

The largest Sunni bloc in parliament, the Iraqi Islamic Party, denounced the Shi'ite-led government for announcing the deaths of only Shi'ite pilgrims. It said Shi'ite militias had attacked innocent Sunni residents yesterday without interference from police, killing at least seven people and wounding many more.

``These militias want to extinguish the flame of peace," said Alaa Makki, a leader of the Iraqi Islamic Party.

Shi'ites from across Iraq flocked to the Kadhimiyah area of Baghdad over the past three days to prepare for yesterday's holiday. The office of radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr estimated 2 million came yesterday, although the US military put the figure at 1 million.

Pilgrims began marching in religious parades at 3 a.m., thrashing their backs with heavy metal chains to the beat of a drum in an act of ritual penance.

``We wish to be bombed and killed so that we will be in the immortal paradise along with Imam Kadhim and the rest of the prophet's family," said Malik al-Majid, 46, a leader of the parade. ``We are not afraid of anything."

The violence began before dawn when 150 to 200 Sunni insurgents began firing mortars and shooting at pilgrims in the Solaikh and Adamiyah districts of Baghdad, said Brigadier General Karim Taha, commander of nearby Iraqi Army troops. Snipers also targeted worshipers in the Karkh, Kadhimiyah, and Bab al- Muadham areas.

Luai Hussein, a Shi'ite worshiper, said he was returning at 11 a.m. from ceremonies at the gold-domed shrine were Imam Kadhim is believed to be buried when two rooftop snipers shot and killed his friend.

``Be careful, there are snipers!" he recalled members of the Mahdi Army, Sadr's militia, shouting as they fired guns into the air.

Sunni residents said they were being attacked by members of Shi'ite militias who seemed bent on avenging the deaths of the estimated 1,000 pilgrims last year.

Makki, of the Iraqi Islamic Party, said Shi'ite militias used mortars, Katyusha rockets, and rocket-propelled grenades to attack Sunnis.

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