BAGHDAD – Angry Shiites pelted police with stones after a suicide bomber killed at least 58 people near a holy Shiite shrine in the southern city of Karbala on Saturday, in an attack likely to fuel growing Shiite frustration with the Iraqi government’s continuing inability to stem the onslaught of bombings.
Also Saturday, the U.S. military announced the deaths of nine U.S. troops, five of them on Friday in the Sunni province of Anbar and four in two roadside bombings southeast of Baghdad on Saturday, setting April on track to become the bloodiest month of the year for U.S. forces, with at least 90 hostile deaths reported.
The bombing in Karbala took place at sunset a few hundred yards from the gold-domed Imam Abbas shrine, the third-most-sacred Shiite site in Iraq, when a suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into a barrier protecting access to the shrine. Many of the dead and injured were heading to evening prayers.
In the chaotic aftermath, police fired shots in the air to clear a path for ambulances, and angry crowds began throwing stones at the police, witnesses said. State television broadcast pictures of a man running through the crowds carrying the charred body of a baby high above his head.
News reports, quoting Karbala’s governor, said a mob later attacked a provincial government guesthouse.
The Karbala attack is the latest in a string of mass casualty bombings that have intensified since President Bush announced in January that he would dispatch five extra combat brigades to support Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Baghdad security plan aimed at pacifying the capital.
While most of the bombings have taken place in Baghdad, recent months have seen a growing number of attacks in the predominantly Shiite south, which previously had been considered relatively secure.
Saturday’s bombing occurred close to the site of a similar attack exactly two weeks earlier at the nearby Imam Hussein shrine in which 47 people died, indicating that insurgents have succeeded in penetrating the region.
U.S. officials have repeatedly warned that insurgents confronting the “surge” of American troops are likely to target locations elsewhere, as they are squeezed out of Baghdad.
The unremitting bombing campaign aimed at maximizing civilian casualties in mostly Shiite areas is intended, U.S. and Iraqi officials say, to undermine the Baghdad security plan by inflaming sectarian rivalries to the point where civil war erupts.
Bombings such as this one, however, in an almost wholly Shiite city, are just as likely to exacerbate tensions between rival Shiite factions competing for influence within the community.
In Basra, members of the ruling Shiite coalition have teamed up to try to oust the provincial governor, who belongs to the Fadhila Party, a breakaway Sadrist faction that withdrew from the governing Shiite coalition last month.
After a week of demonstrations led by followers of the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, Basra’s provincial council announced Saturday that it had severed all ties with the governor, setting the stage for a showdown over control of the oil-rich city.