BAGHDAD (AFP) – Gunmen ambushed Shiite pilgrims as they marched through Baghdad, killing 16 and wounding 240 more, a year after a stampede claimed the 1,000 lives on the deadliest day in post-war Iraq.
Bursts of gunfire and explosions rocked the Iraqi capital as hundreds of thousands of Shiites headed to the mausoleum of Imam Musa Kadhim, whose death 12 centuries ago is marked by major Shiite pilgrimage every year.
Government spokesmen said security forces had the event under control Sunday, but a senior health ministry official said that 16 pilgrims were killed when suspected Sunni extremists fired into crowds.
Armed Shiites from the Mehdi Army militia, followers of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, could be seen escorting sections of the crowd, fuelling fears that the festival could stir Iraq’s sectarian conflict.
The attacks were a reminder of last year’s gruesome tragedy when at least 965 Shiite pilgrims were killed in a bridge stampede triggered by a mortar attack and rumours of a suicide bomber in the midst of pilgrims.
“There was some shooting on the Rusafa (east Baghdad) side against civilians, but the situation is under control,” said Qassem al-Mussawi, head of joint operation centre in the prime minister’s office.
Shooting broke out in the Al-Khilani neighbourhood when a sniper opened up on a crowd of pilgrims and police returned fire. The crowd was diverted onto a new route, where they came under fire again as they passed a Sunni cemetery.
Health ministry departmental director Hakim al-Zamili told AFP the attacks took place in several districts of central Baghdad, and that more than 240 wounded pilgrims had been admitted to city hospitals.
State media blamed the ambushes on “takfiris” or Sunni extremists, but some Sunni leaders claimed Shiites had provoked the attacks and government security forces had stood by as militiamen attacked Sunni homes and mosques.
“We demand that the government stand up to these saboteurs and those who are trying to destablise the country,” said a statement from the Islamic Party, the main Sunni group in Iraq’s coalition government.
Despite the threat of attacks, men, women and children carrying green, orange and yellow flags and Korans, many of them dressed in traditional Shiite black outfits, gathered at the tomb of Imam Musa Kadhim.
Iraqi and US security forces were on a high alert to protect pilgrims, many of whom have walked barefoot from across Iraq over the past week to Baghdad which is gripped by a bloody Shiite-Sunni sectarian conflict.
Troops and volunteers offered food and water to the pilgrims as they arrived and made their way to the shrine.
Pilgrims inside the mausoleum kissed the tomb, while outside volunteers sprinkled rose water on them, and others prepared rice and meat to be served as lunch to the devotees.
“It was a shattering experience for us when so many people died on the bridge last year,” said Haider Sadek, a Shiite from Baghdad.
“But the unity shown then by the Adhamiyah people with those with Kadhimiyah helped heal wounds,” he said, referring to two districts — one Sunni and one Shiite — linked by the Al-Aima bridge, the scene of last year’s stampede.
Kareem Risan, walked from the southern city of Amara to take part in this year’s pilgrimage. “It took us seven days. We risked our lives and braved all possible danger to reach here,” he told AFP.
Security forces expect more than a million pilgrims to attend the ritual.
Iraqi authorities have created a detailed security plan and imposed a vehicle curfew across much of central Baghdad from nightfall Friday for two days until after the crowds have dispersed Sunday evening.
On Sunday, Baghdad was even more tense than it was before last year’s tragedy. Daily insurgent bombings target crowds of Shiite civilians, while death squads hunt members of the Sunni minority.
Health officials put the average daily death toll at 50, while Iraqi and US forces have deployed more than 30,000 troops under an ambitious security plan designed to return order to the capital.