NAJAF, Iraq -- Shiite militias attacked each other in Karbala yesterday, killing more than 50 people in gunfights, setting fire to three hotels and forcing authorities to scuttle a religious festival by ordering a million celebrants to leave the holy city where they had gathered.
More than 200 others were injured in the panic that ensued when Mahdi Army militia members loyal to anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr battled the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
The death toll threatened to climb, with witnesses reporting dozens of bodies still slumped on the streets surrounding the Imam Hussein shrine and amid the smoldering rubble of the three nearby buildings set fire during the rampage.
The two Shiite militias have been waging an increasingly deadly battle for control of southern Iraq's most important cities and its oil resources. The southern city of Basra, the wealthiest oil venue in Iraq, is about to be handed over to Iraqi forces by British troops, which has accelerated clashes between the Mahdi and Badr militias as they jockey for power in the region in the absence of any functional government.
The latest confrontation came in the midst of the annual Shiite Muslim pilgrimage to Karbala that was due to have culminated in prayers and festivities overnight yesterday to today in commemoration of the birth of Mohammed al-Mahdi, one of the Shiite faith's 12 revered imams. The curfews and evacuation order scuttled the highlight of the ritual in honor of the ninth-century prophet who disappeared, and according to Shiite belief, will return one day to usher in an era of peace.
Since the ouster of Saddam Hussein in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the majority Shiite population oppressed by his Sunni-dominated government has had new freedom to participate in pilgrimages and other religious activities. But some of the mass activities have been marred by attacks by the Sunni community and, in this case, by fighting between rival Shiite groups. The latter have also been battling for political supremacy as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government founders amid charges of incompetence and sectarianism.
Iraqi authorities ordered a curfew for the besieged city 50 miles south of Baghdad, as well as for Najaf and Hillah, other Badr strongholds on the route back to Baghdad, and sent buses to begin evacuating pilgrims.
Intra-Shiite fighting spread to Baghdad by last night, when gunmen believed to be from the Mahdi militia attacked at least four offices of rival political factions.
Saad Fakhrildeen and Carol J. Williams write for the Los Angeles Times.