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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Shiite Shrine Blasts Kill 143 in Iraq

KARBALA, Iraq -- A series of coordinated blasts struck major Shiite Muslim shrines here and in Baghdad on Tuesday as thousands of pilgrims converged on the climactic day of the sect's most important religious festival. At least 143 people were killed and hundreds wounded, hospital and police officials reported.

There were varying reports on the cause of the blasts in the southern holy city of Karbala and the Kazimiya shrine in Baghdad. Stunned witnesses blamed suicide bombers or planted explosives, though there were some reports of mortars fired.

The attacks sparked a wave of Shiite outrage -- much of it directed at U.S. troops in the Iraqi capital.

Iraqis attacked U.S. Army medics trying to help wounded. Throwing stones and garbage, the Iraqis chased the U.S. troops back into their high-walled compound near the blast area then tried to storm the gates. Soldiers threw smoke grenades and fired shotguns into the air to drive the mob off.

Two soldiers suffered broken bones when a crowd pelted their Humvees with a hail of stones outside the Kazimiya shrine.

U.S. intelligence officials have long been concerned about the possibility of militant attacks during the Ashoura festival, and coalition and Iraqi forces bolstered security around Karbala and other Shiite-majority towns in the south during the pilgrimage.

Last month, U.S. officials released what they said was a letter by Jordanian militant Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi outlining a strategy of spectacular attacks on Shiite-led bodies in all directions and sending crowds of pilgrims fleeing in panic.

Dead and wounded were loaded onto wooden carts normally used to ferry elderly pilgrims to holy sites. Bodies ripped apart by the force of the blasts lay on the streets.

At about the same time, three explosions rocked the inside and outside of Baghdad's Kazimiya shrine, which contains the tombs of two other saints. Panicked men and women, dressed in black, fled screaming and weeping as ambulances raced to the scene.

Crowds of enraged survivors swarmed nearby hospitals, some blaming the United States for stirring up religious tensions by launching the war, others blaming al-Qaida or Sunni extremists. Iran condemned the blasts as "terrorist" and "vicious" attacks, according to Iranian state radio. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said the United States and its allies are "responsible for security" for the pilgrims at Karbala and in Baghdad.

In Beirut, a spokesman for Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Hussein al-Sistani, blamed U.S. soldiers for the attacks, saying they were responsible for the security. Sheik Hamed Khafaf said U.S. officials had ignored repeated requests to bolster security for the pilgrims.

Iraqi police arrested four would-be suicide bombers in the southern Iraqi city of Basra on Tuesday, hours after attacks on Shiite shrines elsewhere.

Police sources said two men -- a Syrian and an Iraqi -- were arrested after a car bomb was found outside the Seyed Ali al-Musawi Mosque in central Basra.

Later in the day police arrested two women who were wearing explosives-laden belts as the marched in a procession to mark Ashoura.