Twenty-four people, including 22 Iranian pilgrims visiting Shiite holy sites in Iraq, died on Friday when two buses collided head-on south of Baghdad, official and eyewitnesses said. The spokesman for Babil province police, Maj Muthana Khalid, said that the buses carrying Iranian pilgrims and Iraqi travelers overturned in the southern city of Hillah, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of the capital. Passers-by pulled people from the windows in a rush, fearing the buses would explode. Two Iraqis were also killed, and more than 50 Iraqis and Iranians were injured. Dr. Saad Al-Nakaash of Hillah hospital confirmed the casualties.
"Our bus was hit by another bus and the passengers in my bus flew over the other," said Jassim Swadi, 45, a Hillah resident who was traveling in one of the buses on business. "The sky could be seen from the windows, and we realized that the bus must have turned over." Swadi, lying in a bed at Hillah hospitals for injuries to his head and right hand, described other passengers climbing out of windows as he lay in shock.
Eyewitnesses said that the two buses were going in opposite directions when one of them tried to pass another vehicle. The buses collided head on and flipped over on the side of the road. One of the drivers was also killed. Shiite pilgrims come from all over the world to visit shrines and mosques in Iraq that are revered by Shiites, but the vast majority of the religious tourists are Iranians.
The pilgrims have often been targeted by Sunni extremists who view Shiites as non-believers, but Friday's crash did not appear to be related to violence.
Both Iran and Iraq are Shiite majority countries. But before the 2003 US-led invasion, relations between the Iranian government and Saddam Hussein's minority Sunni dominated country were so strained that it was difficult for Iranians to visit what are considered some of the most holy sites for Shiites.
Iran and Iraq fought a brutal eight-year war in the 1980s that left hundreds of thousands of people dead on both sides. After Saddam was deposed, Iranians flooded into the country to see such locations as the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas mosques in Karbala and the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, and their tourist dollars became an important source of income for Iraq.
Also Friday, a sniper shot and killed a policeman manning a checkpoint in the capital's western neighborhood of Iskan, and gunmen with silencers opened fire from a speeding car on a police colonel and wounded him, officials from police and hospitals said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
While overall violence has dropped considerably in Iraq, government officials remain a prime target for insurgents.