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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraq's Shi'ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on Wednesday militants involved in violence in the city of Kerbala wanted to blow up the Imam Hussein shrine, one of the holiest in the world to Shi'ite Muslims.
Police said gunmen had tried to take over the area around the Imam Hussein shrine and also the Imam Abbas shrine on Tuesday at the height of a Shi'ite festival in the southern city. The shrines, which are close together, were the focal point of an event attended by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.
"From our initial investigation, we found some evidence of who did this act... the intention of this act was to storm into the shrine of Imam Hussein and blow it up," Maliki said from inside the Imam Hussein shrine during a visit to Kerbala.
At one stage late on Tuesday, the area near the revered shrines came under heavy fire, a senior Shi'ite official in charge of the holy sites has said.
Day-clashes in Kerbala on Tuesday killed 52 people and wounded hundreds more.
Iraq's security forces had originally feared Sunni Islamist al Qaeda might try to launch a large-scale attack on the pilgrims in Kerbala to inflame sectarian tensions.
The bombing of a revered Shi'ite shrine in the town of Samarra in February 2006 unleashed of wave of sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis. The government blamed al Qaeda for that attack.
Maliki earlier said his troops had restored calm to Kerbala and blamed "outlawed armed criminal gangs from the remnants of the buried Saddam regime" for the violence.
Street battles in the city also appeared to pit Iraq's two biggest Shi'ite groups against each other -- followers of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mehdi Army, and the rival Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC), whose armed wing controls police in much of the south.
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