RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Thousands of Shiite pilgrims are fleeing the Iraqi city of Karbala. The holy city south of Baghdad has been the scene of fierce clashes between rival factions that have left at least 24 dead. Those clashes erupted as thousands of Shiite pilgrims have been pouring into Karbala from around the country for a Shiite religious festival.
NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from Baghdad. And Corey, break down who's fight who?
COREY FLINTOFF: It's pretty hard to tell, frankly. The story that we haven't been able to independently confirm yet is that the fighting broke out when one of the shrine guardians tried to prevent a member of the Mahdi militia from entering the area with a pistol. And this is where it shapes up as a factional fight between Shiites because the shrine guards are loyal to the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and the Mahdi militia supports the anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
So this fight apparently broke out in the neighborhood slightly north of the two major mosques there, but it spread into the area around the shrines. And when the Iraqi army and police tried to move into the area, evidently they were attacked by snipers from the Mahdi militia.
So that's when the fighting really got intense. Pilgrims were packed right into the middle of it. There were a couple of police cars burned by rocket-propelled grenades. There was sniping going on. There was - a house of one key Sistani aide was burned. And what we hear right now is that there's still shooting going on.
MONTAGNE: So what do you make of the fact that Muqtada al-Sadr's office released a statement saying that his forces, the Mahdi army, are not involved in this fighting?
FLINTOFF: Well, it seems pretty unlikely. The pilgrims have made their way to Karbala for this festival, many of them on foot all the way from Baghdad. And even places even farther away. And as they've gone along, they passed through really intense security. There was great fear that this festival would be marred by violence. And so they passed through checkpoint after checkpoint. They've been searched over and over again. There really doesn't seem to be any way that anyone could have smuggled in sniper rifles and rocket-propelled grenades and some of the weaponry that's been used in this fighting.
MONTAGNE: And these checkpoints were set up initially because the fear was there would be attacks from Sunni insurgents.
FLINTOFF: Exactly right. That was the big fear.
MONTAGNE: Tell us about the evacuation. Is it disorderly? Dangerous?
FLINTOFF: Well, yes. Both. Imam Shirazi, who is the leader of the Imam Hussein mosque, one of the major shrines, issued an appeal to negotiate between the two sides, and not only to stop further bloodshed but also to evacuate the wounded who are now lying in the streets around the holy places. And of course he also wants to get as many people as possible safely away from Karbala in case this fighting goes on.
But tonight it's really a culmination of the Shiite religious festival and people will presumably be reluctant to go far away, even with the danger. So we've heard some apparently false rumors of stampedes where people were hurt. But it certainly is going to be nearly impossible, one would think, to get hundreds of thousands of people safely out of that city.
MONTAGNE: Corey, thanks very much.
FLINTOFF: Thank you.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Corey Flintoff speaking from Baghdad.
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