Clashes in Karbala Force Pilgrims to Flee

Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims are fleeing the holy city of Karbala amid clashes between rival Shiite factions that have left at least 24 dead and dozens wounded. The fighting broke out late Monday.

Shiite Pilgrims Told to Leave Violence-Hit Karbala

The early calm of Shiite pilgrims gathering at the Imam Hussein shrine ahead of the Aug. 28 celebrat

The early calm of Shiite pilgrims gathering at the Imam Hussein shrine ahead of the Aug. 28 celebrations was soon shattered by attacks in Karbala. Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi Shiite boy prays over the tomb of Imam Abbas in Karbala, south of Baghdad on Sunday. i i

An Iraqi Shiite boy prays over the tomb of Imam Abbas in Karbala, south of Baghdad on Sunday. Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images
An Iraqi Shiite boy prays over the tomb of Imam Abbas in Karbala, south of Baghdad on Sunday.

An Iraqi Shiite boy prays over the tomb of Imam Abbas in Karbala, south of Baghdad on Sunday.

Mohammed Sawaf/AFP/Getty Images

A curfew was imposed in the Shiite holy city of Karbala on Tuesday and more than 1 million pilgrims were instructed to leave after violence killed at least 27 people and wounded dozens of others during a religious festival.

Maj. Gen. Abdul-Karim Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman, gave the toll of dead and wounded to The Associated Press, and said the "entrances and exits to Karbala have been secured and more forces are on the way from other provinces."

Another official in the ministry accused the Mahdi Army militia of radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr of attacking government security forces in the center of Karbala, site of two Shiite shrines under the control of the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council.

Al-Sadr's forces are battling SIIC for power in regions south of Baghdad.

The official, who would not allow his name to be used for security reasons, said the government in Baghdad was sending buses to Karbala to take some of the pilgrims out of the city.

Gunshots rang out in the area near the Shiite shrines, which are the focal point of celebrations marking the birthday of the 12th and last Shiite imam, who disappeared in the 9th century. The festival was to have reached its high point Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

The 27 dead were killed in two outbursts of gunfire - one Monday night and a second about midday Tuesday. Police initially blamed Shiite pilgrims trying to push past frustratingly slow security checkpoints near the Imam al-Hussein mosque.

Khalaf said Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had dispatched more troops to the area from Baghdad and surrounding areas.

He said the gunmen who fought police were "criminals," adding that the curfew was imposed because of fears for the many pilgrims.

"The situation now is under control but what is worrying is that the pilgrims are in huge numbers. ... The area where they were gathering has been evacuated in order to control those (criminals)," Khalaf said. He said the gunmen were gathering in three areas in the old town and security forces were chasing them.

A member of the city council said the center of town was in chaos, with pilgrims running in all directions to escape the gunfire. No one, he said, was sure who was doing the shooting. He said a rocket-propelled grenade exploded near the shrine.

"We don't know what's going on," said the councilman, who wouldn't allow use of his name for security reasons. "All we know is the huge numbers of pilgrims was too much for the checkpoints to handle and now there is shooting."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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