AP, BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) – Shiite clerics joined Sunni preachers in a march of thousands of mostly black-clad men Wednesday, trying to keep sectarian passions in check after a horrific attack on Shiite pilgrims that raised fears of civil war.
U.S. and Iraqi officials disagreed over how many people died in Tuesday's bombings in Baghdad and Karbala – the deadliest here since the fall of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi Governing Council said 271 people were killed. U.S. officials put the toll at 117.
On Thursday, a U.S. Army spokesman said a rocket struck the green zone where the headquarters of U.S.-led occupation authority is located after five large explosions rumbled through the center of the capital late Wednesday. No one was injured and no damage was reported.
Tuesday's attacks – at some of the holiest shrines of Shiite Islam and on the most sacred day in the Shiite calendar – threatened to turn Shiites against Sunnis if the bombers were found to have been Iraqi Sunni extremists.
But strife with the country's Sunni minority would hardly be in the interests of the Shiites, who stand on the verge of achieving their dream of real political power after generations of suppression. Civil war would threaten those dreams, and the community's influential clergy appeared eager to keep passions in check.
No group claimed responsibility for Tuesday's attacks. However, the top U.S. commander in the Middle East, Gen. John Abizaid, said Wednesday the United States has evidence that al-Qaida-linked Jordanian militant Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was behind the bombings.
U.S. officials said 15 people were detained in Karbala in connection with the attacks, though none was charged. Among those detained were five Farsi speakers, a suggestion that they were Iranians. About 100,000 Iranians were believed to have come to Iraq for the Ashoura religious rituals, and Iran's news agency said 23 Iranians were among the dead.
In what appeared to be a nod to criticism from Iraq's top Shiite cleric, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer said the coalition would help strengthen border security, saying it was “increasingly apparent'' that “a large part of terrorism'' comes from outside Iraq.
Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani and other Shiite leaders accused the coalition of failing to provide adequate security for the worshippers and of not doing enough to prevent extremists from crossing Iraq's porous borders.
“There are 8,000 border police on duty today and more are on the way,'' Bremer said. “We are adding hundreds of vehicles and doubling border police staffing in selected areas. The United States has committed $60 million to support border security.''
In an attempt to play down sectarian divisions, Shiite Muslim clerics and Sunni preachers led thousands in a march from a Shiite suburb in eastern Baghdad to the Kazimiya district where the bombings in the capital took place.
“We and our Sunni countrymen are, have been and always will be, brothers,'' said Shiite preacher Amer al-Hussein, a senior aide to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, an outspoken opponent of the U.S.-led occupation.
Members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council also stressed the need for unity between Shiites and Sunnis.
“It was a crime directed not only against Shiites, or Islam, but against humanity,'' said Ibrahim al-Jaafari, a prominent Shiite council member. “Anyone who kills a Sunni is against the spirit of Shiism. And anyone who kills a Shiite is against the spirit of Sunnism,'' he said.
Governing Council members also sought to discourage speculation that the attacks would trigger a wave of reprisal killings that would spiral toward civil war.
“We are nowhere near civil war,'' said Mouwafak al-Rubaie, a Shiite member. “It will never happen in this country.''
Shiites are believed to comprise about 60 percent of Iraq's 25 million people, and the collapse of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime has offered them the opportunity to transform their numbers into domination of the government being worked out with the U.S.-led coalition.
Abizaid's statement in Washington is the most direct assertion yet by a U.S. official that al-Zarqawi is carrying through on a terrorist campaign inside Iraq, as described in a letter purportedly written by al-Zarqawi and intercepted recently by U.S. intelligence.
The letter outlined plans to attack Shiite religious sites to foment a civil war. The Bush administration says al-Zarqawi has links to Osama bin Laden, leader of the al-Qaida terrorist network blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks against the United States.
“The level of organization and the desire to cause casualties among innocent worshippers is a clear hallmark of the Zarqawi network, and we have intelligence that ties Zarqawi to this attack,'' Abizaid, head of the U.S. Central Command, told a congressional committee.
A letter purported to come from al-Qaida denied responsibility for Tuesday's bombings, blaming American troops instead – but it also called Shiites infidels.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that despite the al-Qaida letter, “you can't rule out an al-Qaida role in this.'' Zarqawi “is not a member of al-Qaida, but someone who has links to al-Qaida,'' the official noted.
In Karbala on Wednesday, weeping relatives pored over lists of the dead posted on the hospital walls as authorities worked to identify victims. Families who received their loved ones' bodies took them away for burial – in Karbala, in their home towns or in the vast cemeteries of the nearby holy city of Najaf.
In a sign of the bitterness over the lack of security, several thousand Shiites chanted anti-U.S. slogans in one funeral procession. “No, no, Americans! No, no Israel! No, no, terrorists!'' they shouted, carrying three coffins through Karbala's streets. Some took a sheet painted to look like an American flag and set it ablaze.
But in Baghdad, the current Governing Council president, Shiite cleric Mohammed Bahr al-Ulloum, and other council members spoke graphically of the devastation of the attacks, apparently hoping to stir revulsion among Iraqis of all factions, ethnic groups and creeds.
In the streets of this teeming capital, many Shiites echoed the need for unity.
“What happened yesterday is indescribable,'' Salah Abu Mahdi said as he served Iranian pilgrims at his grocery story in Kazimiya. “We and the Sunnis have always lived in peace.''