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Shiite Shrines At Karbala, Najaf Show Blood, Battle Scars

April 2, 1991

KARBALA, Iraq (AP) _ All the mosques in this Shiite Muslim holy city were damaged by artillery and gunfire when pro-Saddam loyalists crushed a Shiite-led revolt last month.

For the first time in their 1,000-year history, the gold-domed shrines had become battle grounds.

In a mosque once controlled by the insurgents, dried blood now stains the floor. The anti-government slogans of rebels have been covered with graffiti that praises President Saddam Hussein.

Foreign journalists escorted to Karbala on Monday by government officials found the city tense.

Parts of Karbala were leveled - houses demolished, government buildings, police and fire stations burned and looted. Schools, hospitals, shops, warehouses, hotels, restaurants were shattered, most sprayed with bullets.

There was misery in people’s eyes, especially those of women shuttling through the streets and the markets.

Every time the women were stopped to ask what happened, some looked sad and walked away. Others looked nervous and said they knew nothing, even those who spoke did not want to give any details.

″What can I say? What happened is beyond imagination,″ said one young woman.

The journalists were told by officials that rebels had used Karbala’s mosques as execution galleries for captured members of Saddam’s ruling Baath Party.

Information Ministry officials also escorted the reporters to Najaf, the country’s other main Shiite holy city and another former site of fierce fighting.

They found less damage in the city, 100 miles south of Baghdad, than in Karbala, and residents and soldiers described a battle that sounded much like the fight for Karbala.

Karbala and Najaf were the site of 7th century battles to succeed the Prophet Mohammed; battles that led to the schism between the Shiite and Sunni sects. The Sunni-dominated Iraqi government recently spent millions of dollars to restore the cities’ mosques and domes as gesture to the majority Shiites who dominate the country’s south.

On Monday, a Syrian-based Shiite leader claimed rebels were still staging nighttime raids on government headquarters in Karbala, which is about 50 miles southwest of Baghdad.

The statement, from the Ayatollah Mohammed Taki Modaresi, claimed Iraqi air raids and tank attacks against civilians seeking shelter in the holy shrines killed 20,000 people in the last 10 days of the uprising.

It also accused the government of using mustard gas.

Soldiers in Karbala said the army regained control of the city’s holy sites on March 14.

On Monday, Saddam’s portraits in the streets bore huge holes left by cannon shells, but new pictures were already placed on shattered government buildings along with slogans such as ″Long Live Saddam.″

Soldiers claimed Iranians, Saudis, Kuwaitis and Egyptians were among those arrested when they retook the town.

″Many residents joined the opposition,″ said one woman covered in black robes from head to toe as Muslim tradition dictates.

She refused to say more. ″I’m afraid to say anything. I don’t know what happened,″ she said, walking away.

The governor of Karbala, Abdel-Khalid Abdel-Aziz told reporters: ″The mobs used manipulation methods to persuade residents to join them. They used deceptive methods to control the people.″

The governor said the rebels were mainly Iranian exiles and escaped criminals. He said they killed hundreds of innocent people during the week they controlled the city. At least 150 were arrested, he said.

Update hourly