Clashes erupt in Kerbala and Falluja bombed

KERBALA, Iraq - Police killed three people on Monday night in clashes with pilgrims in Iraq's holy city of Kerbala, where tens of thousands of Shi'ites have gathered for one of the holiest days on the Shi'ite calendar.

A Reuters photographer said he saw one pilgrim shot dead outside his hotel. Several wounded were carried away by fellow pilgrims.

A water tanker was ablaze and the sounds of gunfire echoed in the streets around the hotel, situated between the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas mosques, for about two hours, he said.

Police said they opened fire on a large crowd of pilgrims infuriated by the strict security measures in force in the city for the celebrations, killing three and wounding 13. The shots were fired after the pilgrims began brawling with the policemen.

And in the town of Falluja, west of Baghdad, a suicide bomber killed 10 people and wounded 11 when he blew himself up after evening prayers in a mosque, police and hospital sources said.

The surge in violence came as the United States was pushing for a political accord between Iraqi leaders to reduce sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Some 10,000 police officers and 5,000 Iraqi soldiers had been deployed in Kerbala ahead of a ceremony on Tuesday and Wednesday marking the 9th century birth of Muhammad al-Mahdi.

Shi'ites believe that Mahdi, the last of 12 imams they revere as saints, never died and will return to save mankind.

Pilgrims from Baghdad and other Shi'ite towns have been converging on Kerbala, mostly on foot, in the past few days.

Shi'ite pilgrimages have been a target of Sunni Arab bombers and have also served as rallying events for the country's Shi'ite majority, now running the government after decades of repression under Sunni Arab ruler Saddam Hussein.

The pilgrimage so far had been largely peaceful, with few reports of any violence.

ACCORD QUESTIONED

Earlier on Monday, a Sunni vice president said that a new political accord between Iraq's main Sunni Arab, Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders would not be enough to lure minority Sunni Arabs back into the government.

Five political leaders announced the deal late on Sunday, agreeing measures to readmit former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party to public life and the release of many detainees.

"What happened yesterday is a good achievement in the current confused political situation. It is an achievement that deserves to be supported," Tareq al-Hashemi, the Sunni Arab vice president who signed the accord, told reporters.

Hashemi signed the agreement along with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, a Shi'ite, and three other leading Shi'ite and Kurdish political leaders.

But Hashemi said the Accordance Front, which groups three parties from the disaffected Sunni Arab minority, would not reverse its decision to quit the cabinet on August 1.

"Our previous experience with the government has not been encouraging, and we will not go back just because of promises, unless there are real and tangible reforms," he said.

US Ambassador Ryan Crocker hailed the deal, which will give him at least some good news to deliver in two weeks when he and the top US general in Iraq, David Petraeus, report back to Washington in a pivotal moment for US policy.

"The statement released by the five leaders yesterday is a positive and encouraging message that the government is making all efforts to achieve benefits for Iraqi people," Crocker told a conference in Arabic on Monday.

"I'm optimistic. I can see there is progress," said Crocker. The remarks were a significant change of tone for the diplomat, who said just a week ago that the government's progress was "extremely disappointing".

PARLIAMENT

Experts question whether the five leaders who reached the deal have enough support to pass laws in parliament.

On the Sunni Arab side, Hashemi leads just one of the three parties in the Accordance Front. On the Shi'ite side, the leaders who signed the deal did not include followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose ministers quit the government this year.

"I don't see how they can push these through parliament when they don't have a majority in parliament," said Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group think tank. "It will be very difficult to get some of these benchmarks met by this new alliance, which is basically more narrow than the one before."

Political leaders in Iraq have announced broad agreements in the past but struggled to implement them or hammer out details.

The leaders also discussed a law to distribute Iraq's oil wealth, but officials said more talks were needed for a deal.

Hashemi said the new rules on Baath Party members would be "a significant improvement" and would relax curbs that had barred thousands of middle class Iraqis from returning to work.

A framework was also drawn up to free some of the tens of thousands held in US and Iraqi jails without charge.

Many of the detainees and Baath Party members are Sunni Arabs who feel persecuted by Maliki's Shi'ite-led government.

(Additional reporting by Wisam Mohammed, Ahmed Rasheed and Peter Graff)

- REUTERS

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