Gunmen murder three Shiite pilgrims in continuing sectarian slaughter

Gunmen targeting streams of Shiite Muslim pilgrims heading for the holy city of Karbala shot and killed three people on Friday morning and wounded two others in a Sunni Muslim neighborhood of Baghdad , police reported.

Such attacks were feared this pilgrimage weekend as Sunni-Shiite tensions heighten across strife-torn Iraq, leading the U.S. command to reinforce the American troop presence here.

In the continuing cycle of apparent reprisal killings, police in a Shiite area of east Baghdad late Thursday found the bodies of four Sunni men who had been seized from a taxi the day before in western Baghdad.

Victims' relatives said the driver told them masked gunmen in black clothes stopped his taxi and abducted the four after seeing their identification cards from Azamiyah, a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad.

Groups of Shiite faithful, many parents with children in tow, trekked down Baghdad streets on Friday, headed for the southbound highway and Karbala, the shrine city 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of here.

At about 7:30 a.m., a BMW sedan driving alongside pilgrims in the western Baghdad district of Adil opened fire, killing three and wounding two, said police Lt. Thair Mahmoud. Further details, including identities and ages of the victims, were not immediately available.

Police later reported a second incident, also in western Baghdad, in which armed men riding in a car fired on pilgrims near Um al-Tuboul Square, wounding three.

The killings were at least the second fatal attack during this holy period. On Tuesday, a roadside bomb exploded among Shiite pilgrims near Baqouba, north of Baghdad, killing one and wounding seven.

Tens of thousands of devout Shiites are converging on the holy site for Monday's celebration of Arbaeen, marking the end of the 40-day mourning period after the date of the death of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, killed in Karbala in 680 A.D.

The pilgrimages have come under attack the past two years. The U.S. military announced earlier this week it was dispatching a battalion of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division, about 700 troops, to Iraq from its base in Kuwait to provide extra security for Shiite holy cities during the Arbaeen period.

Authorities in Karbala, meanwhile, imposed a six-day driving ban starting Thursday in a bid to protect pilgrims.

Monday also marks the third anniversary since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq on March 20, 2003. Tensions between Iraq's Shiite majority and Sunni minority flared into violence after that invasion brought down President Saddam Hussein and ended the long Sunni dominance of Iraq.

The Sunni-Shiite struggle for power underlies the current impasse in forming a new Iraqi government. The country's first elected Parliament since the invasion opened its first session on Thursday, but it immediately adjourned, pending continuing talks on forming a government of national unity.

In another example of the nonstop violence afflicting Baghdad, a plastic bag of explosives covered by cucumbers and tomatoes blew up early Friday afternoon on a minibus in a Shiite district, seriously wounding four passengers, reported police Lt. Bilal Ali. He said the bag had been left there by a departing passenger, reports the AP.


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