Four explosions ripped through Baghdad on Friday, killing at least 28 people and injuring dozens on the eve of Shiite Islam's most important holiday, officials said. It was the deadliest day since Iraq's landmark elections last month.
Suicide bombers attacked two Shiite mosques after Friday prayers ended, another explosion occurred near a Shiite religious procession and a third suicide bomber blew himself up at an Iraqi police and National Guard checkpoint in a Sunni neighborhood.
The attacks — the deadliest since last month's elections — recalled bombings on the Ashoura holiday a year ago that killed at least 181 during the religious festival.
In northern Iraq, meanwhile, three American soldiers were killed in separate attacks Wednesday and Thursday, the U.S. military said.
The bloodshed began when a bomber entered the vestibule of al-Khadimain mosque in the Iraqi capital's Doura neighborhood and detonated his explosives as worshippers prayed, witness Hussein Rahim Qassim said.
Shortly afterward, a bomb exploded outside the al-Bayaa mosque in a predominantly Shiite neighborhood in western Baghdad.
The first explosion killed 15 and the second killed 10, an official at Baghdad's al-Yarmouk Hospital said on condition of anonymity. About 30 were wounded.
Less than an hour later, an explosion near a procession of Shiites marking Ashoura northwest of the city center killed two and injured five, according to Iraqi police Lt. Waed Hussein.
The fourth attack was at the checkpoint in northern Baghdad neighborhood of al-Adamiyah. An Associated Press reporter saw one dead police officer and two wounded civilians.
Shiites had packed into mosques Friday to mark the eve of Ashoura, the 10th day of the Islamic holy month of Muharram and the holiest day of the year for them.
The bombings were a bloody reminder of last year's Ashoura commemorations, when twin blasts ripped through crowds of worshippers at Shiite Muslim shrines in Baghdad and Karbala and killed at least 181 people.
Ashoura marks the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad, in a seventh century battle for leadership of the Islamic world.
The imam at the al-Khadimain mosque used the minaret's loudspeakers to appeal for blood donations, said 1st Lt. Ahmad Ali, who added that a suicide bomber was behind the blast.
Quick action from a security guard at the al-Bayaa mosque may have prevented more bloodshed. Amer Mayah said he opened fire on a man — apparently a second suicide attacker at the mosque — who was trying to get two grenades from his pocket, "and immediately he exploded."
There were no immediate claims of responsibility, but Iraqis blamed radical Sunni Muslim insurgents, who have staged car bombs, shootings and kidnappings to try to destabilize Iraq's reconstruction and provoke a sectarian civil war between Shiites and Sunnis.
"Those infidel Wahhabis, those Osama bin Laden (news - web sites) followers, they did this because they hate Shiites," said Sari Abdullah, a worshipper at the al-Khadimain mosque who was injured by shrapnel from the explosion. "They are afraid of us. They are not Muslims. They are infidels."
Walid Al-Hilly, a leading figure of the Shiite-led Dawa Party, told Al-Jazeera television the attacks were designed to provoke civil war.
"They kill unarmed men, women and children who want to glorify the ceremonies of Ashoura. These terrorist actions will not intimidate us nor make us change the way that we choose freedom from tyranny and oppression," he said. "We chose the path of brotherhood, cooperation and unity between Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds, Shabak, Turkomen and Christians and all other sects."
As of Friday, at least 1,473 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.
One soldier was shot in Mosul in a small-arms attack Thursday, the military said. West of Mosul, a soldier was killed and another was wounded when a roadside bomb exploded while they were on patrol in Tal Afar, the military said.
Another assault in Mosul on Wednesday took the life of a third U.S. soldier, who died in a car bomb attack while patrolling the volatile city. Three other soldiers were wounded.
The deadly explosions in Baghdad came as Iraq partially sealed its land borders in stepped-up security measures on the eve of the holiday, hoping to avert a repeat of last year's bloodshed.
Land borders were partially closed from Friday to Tuesday, said Thaer al-Naqeeb, spokesman for the interim prime minister. Exceptions included trucks carrying food or oil. Baghdad's international airport will remain open for flights, al-Naqeeb and aviation industry officials said.
In the southern city of Karbala, where Ashoura celebrations will be centered, police found the bodies of two police officers, both the sons of the police chief in Najaf, another southern Shiite city, said Karbala police spokesman Rahman Mushawi. It was not clear who killed the two.
Their father, Ghalib al-Jazaeni, said they had been kidnapped overnight as they drove from Najaf to Karbala. Their hands were bound and they had been shot many times in the head.
Before Friday's explosions, Shiite leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim said in a sermon at a mosque in another Baghdad suburb that Iraqi Shiites should unite under the banner of the newly elected National Assembly. His United Iraqi Alliance won 48 percent of the vote Jan. 30 and controlled a majority of seats in the 275-seat parliament.
"I address all Iraqis of all national, religious affiliations. I call upon them to unite to confront all conspiracies against Iraq," al-Hakim said. "I want to confirm to all that the Iraq we want is a secure Iraq, an Iraq in which all people without exception feel justice and equality. Yes, yes for unity."
However, al-Hakim also insisted on pursuing former members of Saddam Hussein (news - web sites)'s Baath Party and removing them from power, blaming them for the recent killings of three members of the Iran-backed Badr Brigades, the military wing of Iraq's largest opposition Shiite party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Saddam, a Sunni, oversaw a regime in which minority Sunnis controlled the majority Shiites.
"We warned many times of the dangers of bringing back killers and criminals to the institutions of government, but those concerned did not listen to our warnings and did not take them seriously," al-Hakim said. "So we witnessed because of that many scenes in which the dignity of Iraqis was violated and their blood was spilled, because of some criminals who were brought back to the security system."
Interim Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi warned Thursday of the dangers of pursuing the so-called de-Baathification of government institutions.
Allawi told The Associated Press that the alliance must change its platform of purging Sunni Baathists from government positions if it wants national unity.
"The alliance talks about de-Baathification. I hope if they get control and they're chosen to be the ones running the country, I sincerely hope that they revisit these issues in their program and re-discuss it with a view of having reconciliation and national unity," Allawi said in English.
"We cannot afford in this country, for now, to go on a route different to that of national unity. It will throw the country into problems, severe problems."