A power struggle between rival Shiite groups erupted during a religious festival in Karbala on Tuesday, as gunmen with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades fought street battles amid crowds of pilgrims, killing at least 50 people and wounding 200, Iraqi officials said.
Witnesses said members of the Mahdi Army, the militia of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, traded fire with security forces loyal to Prime Minister Nouri Kamal al-Maliki’s government.
Amid hours of fighting, several vehicles and a hotel for pilgrims were set ablaze, and terrified pilgrims who had been praying at two shrines were trapped inside as clashes erupted nearby. Witnesses said buses that had been used to bring pilgrims to the city were bullet-shattered and bloodstained.
The government forces in Karbala and other towns in southern Iraq are dominated by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council and its armed wing, the Badr organization. Many Badr fighters are veterans trained by Iran when they lived there as exiles under Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Tensions between the Mahdi Army and the Badr group have been simmering for months. Both are vying for control of the overwhelmingly Shiite regions of central and southern Iraq.
Two provincial governors belonging to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council were assassinated in southern Iraq this month, although the Sadrists deny involvement.
The showdown will prove embarrassing for al-Maliki if his security forces are unable to control the Mahdi Army and restore order in a holy city that lies in his own Shiite heartland.
Security forces imposed an indefinite curfew on Karbala by nightfall Tuesday, fearing that the tensions could escalate as both sides vied for control of the streets. The violence appeared to spread to other cities, although attacks on mosques and offices linked to the Badr group were on a much smaller scale.
In Baghdad, the police said five people were killed and 20 were wounded in clashes between militiamen in the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City.
Brig. Gen. Abdul Kareem Khalaf, an Interior Ministry spokesman in Baghdad, told Iraqi state television that reinforcements were being rushed to Karbala from Baghdad and surrounding provinces. The U.S. military did not intervene directly in the fighting, a spokeswoman said, though it sent jets to fly over Karbala as a “show of force” at the request of the Iraqi authorities.
Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims had descended on Karbala in recent days to celebrate the birth of Mohammad al-Mahdi, the 9th-century saint and the last of 12 imams revered by Shiites.
As pilgrims gathered in a plaza between the city’s twin golden-domed shrines, witnesses said Mahdi Army fighters took up positions around the shrines and traded fire with the police. Pilgrims, who were ordered to leave the city by officials, fled in panic but many were unable to get transportation out of the area as the police set up roadblocks to prevent Mahdi Army fighters from entering.
A policeman speaking from his position in the plaza between the city’s two shrines said: “Hundreds of Mahdi Army have occupied several hotels near the two shrines. The battle is fierce and we are defending our posts here.”