BAGHDAD // A series of blasts killed at least 10 people and wounded scores more yesterday in what a local Iraqi official called a sectarian strike on a holy Shiite city whose residents are still reeling from being targeted in a deadly bus hijacking in a Sunni region this month.
Government officials said a total of four explosions struck the city of Karbala around 10am in a steady sequence over a five-minute period, meaning they were probably coordinated.
Black smoke rose over an Interior Ministry office in Karbala that issues ID cards and that was targeted by two bombs. Another blast hit near a house, cratering its walls and ceiling. And at least one explosion detonated about a half-mile from the city's gold-domed shrine to Imam Abbas.
Three government officials from Karbala - provincial councilmen Mohammed Al Moussawi and Hussein Shadhan Al Aboudi, and parliamentarian Jawad Kadim Al Hassnawi - said 10 people died in the blasts. The number of wounded people ranged from 40 to as high as 90. Conflicting casualty tolls are common in the confusion that immediately follows large attacks in Iraq.
"The aim of these explosions is to ignite the sectarian sedition after the killing 22 of Karbala residents in the Anbar desert two weeks ago," Mr Al Aboudi said. "They also aim to destabilise the security situation in Karbala."
He was referring to a strike on a bus of Shiite pilgrims from Karbala that was hijacked in Iraq's Sunni-dominated Anbar province on September 12 as it headed to a shrine in Damascus, Syria. Gunmen dressed in military-style uniforms ordered 22 men off the bus and executed them in a remote desert area near the highway.
Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki has been trying to tamp down tensions between officials in Karbala and Anbar since the hijacking. Four suspects are being held in the case, and Mr Al Maliki's military advisers say at least some foreigners were among the plotters.
That attack alarmed Iraqi and US security officials who are uneasily watching to see if stability will plummet while the American military continues withdrawing from the country. Under a 2008 security agreement, all US troops are required to be out of Iraq by the end of the year.
But concerns about leaving behind partially trained Iraqi forces has spurred Washington and Baghdad to reconsider the deadline, although no agreement yet has been reached to keep US troops in Iraq beyond 2011.
Shiites were not the only victims of violence in Iraq on Sunday. In the city of Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, two roadside bombs planted near the house of a local Sunni tribal chief killed one person. Police said the first blast also wounded a girl, and four policemen were injured in the follow-up explosion that detonated as security officials arrived at the scene.
Karbala, located 90 kilometres south of Baghdad, is one of the holiest cities in Muslim Shiism because two imams - Abbas and Hussein - are buried there. Initial casualty reports said three policemen were killed in Sunday's attacks on the city, and eight more were among the wounded. Al-Hassnawi said at least one of the blasts appeared to target police and rescue teams who rushed to the government ID office after the first explosion.
Raed Al Assali, a government employee in the Karbala Investment Council, said he was sitting in his office doing paperwork when he heard the booms.
"I rushed to rooftop of our building and I saw thick smoke rising from the blast area," Mr Al Assali said. "Some people in panic were running in the nearby alleys in order to escape fire and danger."
Mr Al Assali said there was growing tension and rising fear among Karbala residents that they are being targeted by Sunni insurgents.
"There's a feeling here that some groups are trying to ignite sectarian sedition by targeting Karbala after the crisis with Anbar," he said, referring to the slaying of the pilgrims.