Explosion at Kufa mosque kills many

The city’s main mosque was packed with male worshippers when the bomb exploded inside, and another close to its door, according to a local doctor, who said 25 bodies were taken to the Middle Euphrates hospital.

Shortly afterwards, Iraqi troops opened fire on a demonstration in support of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on the road between Kufa and Najaf, with several casualties reported.

Thousands of people chanting their solidarity with the Shi’ite cleric and denouncing Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi marched en route to Najaf.

Iraqi national guardsmen reportedly opened fire on the demonstrators as they passed by a military base between the twin cities.

Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is due home in Najaf soon, and the governor of the city said a 24-hour ceasefire will be declared when he arrives.

“The government has decided to decree a 24-hour ceasefire from Sistani’s arrival in Najaf and to secure a protected route between Moqtada Sadr’s office and Sistani’s to facilitate talks,” said spokesman Adnan al-Zorfi.

US forces have been engaged in clashes with Shi’ite insurgents loyal to al-Sadr in Najaf for three weeks.

Mr al-Sadr has in the past regularly delivered sermons during Friday prayers at the Kufa mosque that was shelled.

Ayatollah al-Sistani on Wednesday called on Iraqis to march to Najaf in a bid to rescue the city.

“I have come for the sake of Najaf and I will stay in Najaf until the crisis ends,” Ayatollah Sistani said on Wednesday

In Kufa, witnesses say dead bodies were littered around the mosque compound, which is controlled by Shi’ite militiamen.

A Sadr aide said one mortar shell hit the mosque itself and another landed near the gates of the compound.

It is not known who fired the mortars.

In Najaf, Mr Zorfi said US-led Iraqi government troops would stick to their positions until an agreement was reached, adding that Sadr’s militiamen must disarm and leave the Imam Ali mausoleum.

“If there is no agreement after 24 hours, the fighting will resume,” he said.

The ceasefire was agreed during talks between Iraqi government ministers and Sistani at a villa in Basra late Wednesday, he added.

This comes as US tank and helicopter fire continued to pound militia positions around the shrine in Najaf, as troops tightened their grip.

Several missiles were fired from the air and tanks remain within 20 metres of the western side of the mosque.

Ayatollah al-Sistani is on his way to Najaf from Basra, making his way in a convoy of cars and buses packed with Shi’ite Muslim followers.

Aides said his plan would see weapons-free zones in both Najaf and Kufa.

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