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.
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Clashes in Karbala Force Pilgrims to Flee

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Clashes in Karbala Force Pilgrims to Flee

Clashes in Karbala Force Pilgrims to Flee

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

The thing that many Iraqis feared most this week has happened. Violence has broken out at the site of a major Shiite religious observance. At least 52 people are dead and more than 200 wounded; several buildings have been burned.

BLOCK: The fighting in the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, apparently began as a clash between Shiite militias then drew in Iraqi soldiers and police. Officials are now faced with the massive job of getting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims safely out of the embattled city.

NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us from Baghdad. And Corey, what have we been able to piece together about what went wrong during this pilgrimage?

COREY FLINTOFF: It's difficult to say. Security up until now has been good. Each year about this time Shiite pilgrims walk from places all over Iraq to the shrines at Karbala and over the past few years they've been attacked by Sunni militants. So this year, the Iraqi army and the police provided heavy security along all the major routes into Karbala. And there've been very few incidents.

Police say today's fighting began near the shrines in Karbala when the shrine guards refused to allow a member of the Mahdi militia to pass through a checkpoint carrying a gun. These shrine guards are part of the Badr Brigade, they're the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, and the Mahdi militia supports Moqtada al Sadr, the anti-American Shiite cleric.

So, at that point, it was a clash between factions that have historically been rivals. Then we're told that the Iraqi security forces got involved as the fighting spread to an area that was right between two major shrines and that's where most people here were killed and injured.

BLOCK: And now, authorities are trying to evacuate the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in Karbala. How do they do that?

FLINTOFF: We're not getting a good sense of that yet, and I suspected because - it's because there's been a lot of confusion. They were literally hundreds of thousands - some people say as high as a million in the old city of Karbala when the shooting started this afternoon. The security forces have now imposed curfews in Karbala and in some of the holy cities nearby. So it may be that a lot of those pilgrims will be stuck on the outskirts of the city tonight.

BLOCK: And is the fighting over now?

FLINTOFF: No. The most recent word we've had is that there's still heavy fighting in Karbala. There's gunfire, mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades. Earlier, we heard that at least three of the hotels that cater to pilgrims have been burned along with the house of a top aide to Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

The army was bringing in reinforcements as of this afternoon and that includes a commando unit that's called the Scorpion Brigade. And they're notoriously heavy-handed or they - or at least they have been so in the past. What's worrisome is that the fighting between the Shiite militias also appears to be spreading to other parts of the country.

Here in Baghdad, fighters from the Mahdi militia attacked the political offices of their rival group in several neighborhoods including Kadhimiya and Sadr City. The interior ministry says it's bringing in troops to try to quell that fighting. But we've heard that at least two of those political offices that belonged to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council have been, at least, partially burned down.

BLOCK: Corey, has there been any statement, any reaction from the prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, to all of this violence?

FLINTOFF: Not so far. And it's not clear who exactly is in charge here. We've just heard - and we haven't been able to confirm this independently yet - that the Interior Ministry is calling for a state of emergency in those parts of the city where the two militias, the Madhi army and the Badr Brigades, have a significant presence. They're planning to at least try to protect significant mosques and any other places that might be focal points for the fighting. We have a source in the Interior Ministry who says the government has actually lost control in some of those areas and that there will probably be a curfew declared here relatively soon.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Corey Flintoff in Baghdad. Corey, thanks very much.

FLINTOFF: Thank you, Melissa.

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