28 December 2003
In a carefully planned attack that was clearly intended to take the lives of dozens of occupation troops, Iraqi insurgents yesterday assaulted Polish-led forces in the holy Shia Muslim city of Karbala. At least six foreign soldiers - four Bulgarians and two Thais - as well as seven Iraqis were killed, and nearly 40 were wounded.
Suicide bombers drove three car bombs towards Western military bases within seconds of each other, supported by guerrillas firing rifles and mortars.
It is the first time that an attack on this scale has been launched against occupation forces in Karbala - site of the tomb of the seventh-century Shia martyr Hussein, one of the most important Muslim shrines in Iraq - but its significance goes far beyond yesterday's deaths.
The Poles have been attacked almost nightly around Hillah; the Spanish lost eight intelligence officers in an ambush in November and Italiancarabinieri suffered 18 deaths in Nasiriyah. How soon will the bombers strike at the large British contingent in Basra? This will be the question on the mind of every British soldier in Iraq.
Only the remarkably sharp reaction of Polish and Bulgarian troops appeared to have prevented a massacre at Karbala - the drivers of all four cars were apparently shot dead by guards before they could crash into army bases at the city's university and at the mayor's office. Major-General Andrzej Tyszkiewicz, the head of the multinational force that covers Karbala but who is based in Hillah, ancient Babylon, called the bombings "a co-ordinated, massive attack ... intended to do much harm".
One of the bombs exploded at the mayor's office, setting the building on fire and wounding local policemen outside. Bulgarian soldiers were the principal victims, although a mortar aimed at the Bulgarian contingent missed its target and wounded civilians on the university campus. A defence ministry spokesman in Warsaw said that no Poles were among the dead.
Most of the resistance to the occupation of Iraq has come from Islamists within the Sunni Muslim community. If the Shias, who represent 60 per cent of the population, were to join the insurgency, then the occupation would be almost impossible to maintain.
Guerrillas from the same Wahhabi-Sunni-influenced force that has killed more than 200 American soldiers since George Bush claimed that "major combat operations" were over may well be responsible for the Karbala attack yesterday - and may hope that the Poles and Bulgarians will over-react by killing civilians, as the Americans have done, provoking the Shias to respond.
The Poles sent their "rapid reaction force", backed by 10 helicopters, into the Karbala area yesterday afternoon, but there were no reports of civilian casualties in any house raids or arrests.