NATIONAL

Shias hold U.S. responsible for devastating attacks

MANAMA, MARCH 3. As the dust barely begins to settle on Tuesday's serial blasts in Baghdad and the Iraqi holy city of Karbala, religious and political leaders in the region are appealing for solidarity between the Sunni and Shia communities and holding the American occupation responsible for the carnage. There are conflicting reports on the total death toll resulting from the near simultaneous explosions, which took place when Shias were observing the Ashura ceremony. But according to Khudier Abbass, the Health Minister in the U.S. appointed Iraqi Governing Council, 185 people were killed in these attacks. In Karbala, officials said that 115 people died, while 70 people were killed in Baghdad.

U.S. military officials said that three suicide bombers had attacked Baghdad's Kadhimiya mosque. Ahmed al-Haelali, the man in charge of investigating the bombings said that as many as nine suicide bombers may have been involved in the Karbala strikes. Among foreigners, 22 Iranian pilgrims were believed killed in Karbala and an estimated 100 injured. The Iranian Government is planning to send two military planes to ferry its wounded. The Iranians were also positioning several ambulances and 12 helicopters at major border crossing points with Iraq, in order to evacuate injured Iranians who might have been heading home by road.

U.S. officials and members of the Iraqi Governing Council have been quick to blame the Al-Qaeda for yesterday's bombings. But a letter purportedly from Al-Qaeda that was received by a London-based Arabic newspaper has denied any involvement. The letter was sent by the Abu Hafs al-Masri Brigades that is supposedly linked to the Al-Qaeda. Tuesday's strikes have had a wide impact on the entire region as they were perceived as an attempt to provoke sectarian tensions. Most countries in West Asia have mixed populations of Sunnis and Shias and any deterioration in the relationship between the two communities can be destabilising.

Shias are in a clear majority in Iran, Iraq and Bahrain and an estimated 10 per cent of the of Saudi Arabia's 24 million population, that resides in its oil rich eastern province is Shia. Shias also have an influential presence in Lebanon and Syria.

Aware of the high stakes involved, the top Iraqi Shia spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has appealed for unity against attempts to destabilise Iraq. But the Ayatollah, who has been Iraq's chief advocate for an early handover of power to elected Iraqis used strong words to criticise the American occupiers of Iraq.

"We put responsibility on the occupation forces for the noticeable procrastination in controlling the borders of Iraq and preventing infiltrators, and not strengthening Iraqi national forces and supplying them with the necessary equipment to do their jobs," he said in a statement. Neighbouring Iran also blamed Washington for the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Iran's President Mohammad Khatami was quoted as saying that, "It is clear today that not only has the occupation of Iraq not brought stability and security but, on the contrary, it has deprived the country of security and caused much damage." He said that "devilish hands which refuse to accept a stable and secure Iraq" were behind these attacks.