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Car Bomb Strikes Shiite Holy City

A car bomb exploded near a bus for pilgrims in the Shiite holy city of Najaf on Saturday, killing at least three people, including two Iranians, on the eve of key national elections, officials said.

Blasts in other Iraqi cities have killed dozens this week, underscoring warnings that insurgents would attempt to disrupt the vote with violence. An al-Qaida front group issued a statement on Friday saying those who leave their homes on election day risk attack.

A group of Iranian and Iraqi pilgrims were waiting to board a bus after visiting a famous shrine when the blast occurred about 100 yards (meters) away, said Ahmed Fakhir, an Iraqi translator who was with the Iranian pilgrims.

"I was shocked by the scene, pools of blood and people lying on the ground soaked with their own blood," said Fakhir, 21, from a hospital where he was being treated for shrapnel wounds.

The explosion destroyed two buses, blew a small crater in the ground and shattered nearby shop and hotel windows.

Police blocked access to the blast site and prevented all but the wounded from entering the hospital, fearing more attacks. Earlier this week, a suicide bomber in the city of Baqouba rode in an ambulance to a hospital with the wounded from another attack and blew himself up there.

Jawad al-Garaawi of the Najaf provincial council, said the car bomb killed one Iraqi and two Iranian pilgrims and wounded more than 50 others.

Director Radwan al-Kindi of the Najaf Health Department confirmed the deaths.

Najaf, located 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Baghdad, holds the shrine of Imam Ali, where Saturday's blast occurred. The Shiite holy city attracts thousands of pilgrims from neighboring Iran, which is majority Shiite.

The attack came a day before Iraqis vote in parliamentary elections to determine who will govern the country and deal with deep sectarian tensions as the United States presses ahead with plans to withdraw all its forces by the end of next year.

While overall violence in Iraq has declined significantly since the height of sectarian strife in 2006 and 2007, many fear the elections could re-ignite the violence.

On Friday, the head of an al-Qaida front group warned that anyone venturing outside between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Sunday would "expose himself to the anger of Allah and then to all kinds of weapons of the mujahedeen," or Islamic holy warriors.

In a statement posted on militant Web sites, the purported leader of the Sunni group the Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, also lashed out at Iraq's majority Shiites, who have dominated the government since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

"Political participation, time after time, was useless to repel their evil," al-Baghdadi said, according to a translation by the U.S.-based SITE Intelligence Group that monitors militant Web sites. "Rather, it established their gains and only increased their daring and their attacks against us and our symbols."

An audio recording released on Feb. 12 was also attributed to al-Baghdadi, who threatened to disrupt the vote.

Also on Friday, flyers bearing the name of the Islamic State of Iraq were distributed in the primarily Sunni neighborhood of Azamiyah in north Baghdad neighborhood telling residents to stock up on basic good because they would not be allowed to leave their homes on Sunday to vote.

Security forces collected and burnt the flyers, residents said.

There were also unsigned flyers telling people not to vote for the electoral list of former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite. The flyers criticized Allawi for backing the U.S. offensive in the Sunni city of Fallujah in 2004 and said he does not go to mosques.

This program aired on March 6, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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