NEW: Member of Baghdad council, accused of terrorism, says confession was forced
NEW: A government spokesman denies any pressure and claims ample evidence
Officials say 24 pilgrims wounded were going to the al-Askari shrine
Thousands of pilgrims have been killed or wounded in Iraq since 2003
A bus full of Shiite pilgrims from Pakistan was struck by a roadside bomb Sunday in Iraq, leaving 24 wounded, officials said.
The incident took place near Falluja, west of Baghdad, police and hospital officials said.
The pilgrims were traveling from Najaf to Samarra to visit the al-Askari shrine when the explosion took place in Saqlawiya on Sunday afternoon, officials said.
Last week, three Shiite pilgrims from Lebanon were killed and seven others were wounded when their bus was struck by a roadside bomb on a highway near Ramadi, also west of Baghdad.
Since the U.S-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, thousands of Shiite pilgrims – many of them Iranians – have been killed or wounded by suicide bombers, car bombs, roadside bombs, shootings and indirect fire.
Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for many of the previous attacks.
Meanwhile, a member of Baghdad’s provincial council accused of leading a terrorist cell that attacked Iraqi officials and security forces vehemently proclaimed his innocence Sunday and insisted he’d been tortured and forced to give false confessions.
For years, Iraq’s interior and defense ministries have organized news conferences in which they show video of people confessing to their role in terrorist acts – a practice that some human rights advocacy groups have criticized.
Laith Mustafa was the focal point of one such event Sunday. But he surprised security forces and media when he started jumping and shouting, claiming he was innocent and had no choice but to confess.
“It’s a play run by this general,” said Mustafa, pointing to a police general who was standing among security personnel, in an outburst broadcast on several television stations.
“We are all innocents. I swear if we go back to (the police general), he will murder us.”
At one point, Mustafa broke his handcuffs and tore his orange jumpsuit. One female journalist sitting in the front row ran away as Iraqi police jumped on Mustafa.
Alaa Daham, an Interior Ministry spokesman, told privately run Sharqiya news that there’s sufficient evidence against Mustafa. Daham accused Mustafa of trying to take advantage of the media forum.
“Iraqi security forces have arrested 18 members of a terrorist cell headed by Laith Mustafa,” Daham said. “The investigation was carried out without any pressure on those 18 prisoners.”