Iraq's leaders rallied to stamp out the specter of civil war Tuesday after simultaneous attacks against two Shiite shrines killed at least 140 worshippers and wounded hundreds more as they marked the holy day of Ashoura unhindered for the first time in more than two decades.
Declaring three days of mourning, Iraq's interim Governing Council condemned the attacks, blaming "terrorists and evildoers," and insisted that it would not shatter the country's unity.
Many Shiites, reeling from the bloodiest day in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled from power, were swift to pin blame on the US and "outsiders."
Indeed, the US-led coalition said the attacks bore the hallmarks of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Islamic militant suspected of ties to Al Qaeda who has been accused of orchestrating most of the suicide bombings that have beset Iraq in recent weeks.
The attacks fit an insurgent pattern of targeting civilians and security forces in a bid to foment civil strife. But while the potential for violence on Ashoura was widely recognized, the violence dealt a further blow to efforts to restore stability to a country that is becoming increasingly divided along sectarian and ethnic lines.
The devastating blasts came as millions of Shiite pilgrims from the Arab and Islamic world converged on the this dusty southern city to commemorate the death of Imam Hussein at the battle of Karbala 1,400 years ago, itself a story resonant in blood, sacrifice, and martyrdom.
Shortly after 10 a.m., as thousands of pilgrims marched along the dusty highway on the eastern edge of the city toward the shrines, 10 mortar blasts reverberated across the countryside. Several rounds exploded in the city center, at least one beside the golden-domed shrine of Imam Hussein. Shrapnel tore through the throng of pilgrims standing beside the northern entrance to the shrine, as hundreds fled the scene in panic during the seven-minute bombardment. A US military spokesman, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmet, said that one explosion was caused by a suicide bomber.