The bodies of pilgrims, including women and children, lay strewn on the ground as the wounded were ferried away from the shrine on wooden carts.
The city center was closed to traffic and it took some time before ambulances could reach the scene. Furious gun-wielding militiamen cordoned off the site. Others hosed down the blood-soaked street.
Dazed onlookers stood to one side as trucks and vans raced through the streets calling for blood donors. Dozens of anxious relatives gathered at the entrance to the nearby Hussein Hospital, calling out for news of their loved ones. One teenager emerged through the hospital gate, his trousers shredded and bloodstained. "I was picking up my cousin when the explosion happened," he said in a trembling voice. "My brother was also hurt."
Fearful of further bomb attacks, militiamen stopped and searched passers-by and vehicles.
On the edge of the city where the enormity of the attacks had yet to filter through, Shiites rhythmically beat themselves with chain flails in time to a goatskin drum, a traditional ritual of mourning for Imam Hussein. Others recited verses from the Koran. Saddam Hussein banned Shiites from commemorating Ashoura, fearful that the powerful sentiments evoked by the festival could be mobilized against his regime.
Closer to the shrines, angry Shiites blamed the US and Israel for the attack. Some also accused fellow Shiites from Iran. One Iranian pilgrim was reportedly badly beaten by the crowd. Yet many Iranians were among the victims. Busloads of Iranians have arrived here in the past few days for the Ashoura commemoration. Local police said two men had been arrested in connection with the attacks.
"Whoever did this hates Iraq and the Iraqi people," says Qadom Ghazali. Blaming the US, Mr. Ghazali insists that he bears no ill will toward Iraq's Sunni Muslims: "The Sunnis and the Shiites are all one people and our goal is to unite Iraq."