BAGHDAD - A roadside bomb killed six Shiite Muslim pilgrims yesterday during a procession, the latest violence targeting the group during observances of a religious holiday, officials said.

The deaths followed heightened tensions in a northern Iraqi town after troops were deployed after a scuffle between Christians and Shiites over holiday decorations.

Observances of the 10-day Shiite festival of Ashoura, which ends tomorrow, coincided yesterday with Christian celebrations of Christmas.

The government has been trying to assure people it can protect both Shiites and Christians during the two holidays. During Ashoura, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims converge on the southern holy city of Karbala.

In the days leading up to the event, large processions of men go through the streets of Shiite neighborhoods, beating their chests and using chains to flay their backs in a show of grief over the seventh-century killing of the prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussein.

The gatherings, practically banned under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, have often been targeted by insurgents as a way to sow sectarian divide.

The bomb in Baghdad killed six pilgrims and injured 17, including a local politician, said a policeman in Sadr City in eastern Baghdad. A medic and another policeman confirmed the number of dead.

In the northern Iraqi town of Bartela, troops were deployed and a brief curfew was imposed after three guards at a Christian church were injured during a dispute between Shiites and Christians over competing religious decorations.

The confrontation in Bartela, 240 miles northwest of Baghdad, came as many Christians in Iraq tamped down celebrations to avoid offending Shiites commemorating Iman Hussein's killing. His death sealed the split between Shiites and Sunnis.

A police official said Christians in Bartela had pulled down black flags hung by Shiites to mark Ashoura. The flags were flying near where a church was preparing for Christmas Mass.

Three church guards were slightly injured in the melee, the police official said. A brief curfew was put in place after the incident.

The office of the provincial governor, Atheel al-Nujaifi, said in a statement that he and police officials met with leaders of both groups shortly afterward. He blamed "outsiders who wanted to drive a wedge between Christians and Muslims."

Sayyid Harith Al-Odari, an aide to the powerful anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, said in his Friday sermon, "We offer our thanks and appreciation to our Christian brothers for respecting Ashoura by shortening their celebrations on the occasion of Christ's birth."

The incidents come a day after Shiite pilgrims were targeted in a handful of bombing attacks that left dozens dead.

In the worst attack, police yesterday raised the toll to 19 killed and 80 wounded in a double bombing in Hillah, 60 miles south of Baghdad.

Odierno Rescinds Pregnancy Policy

A controversial policy

that put pregnant soldiers in war zones at risk

of discipline will be rescinded under an order from the top U.S. commander in Iraq.

Gen. Raymond Odierno has drafted a broad new policy for the U.S. forces in Iraq, to take effect Jan. 1, that omits a pregnancy provision one of his subordinate commanders enacted last month, according to the U.S. military command in Iraq.

The provision issued by Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, which would permit the punishment of soldiers who become pregnant and their sexual partners, had drawn criticism. The order had listed various offenses, and the punishments could range from minor discipline to a court-martial. But earlier this week, Cucolo told reporters he would never actually seek to jail someone over the pregnancy provision.

He said the policy was intended to emphasize

the problems created when pregnant soldiers

go home and leave behind a weaker unit.

- Associated Press

EndText