BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraq’s first major religious festival since U.S. troops pulled out its cities ended largely peacefully on Saturday, officials said, a sign Iraqi forces may have passed their first serious solo test.
Over the weekend, millions of pilgrims, mostly dressed in black, streamed to the golden domed Imam Moussa shrine in northern Baghdad, site of some of the deadliest attacks on Iraqi civilians since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
The ritual to commemorate the death of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim, a medieval Shi’ite holy man, or imam, culminated on Saturday under heavy security.
Baghdad security spokesman Qassim al-Moussawi told the BBC Arabic service some 5 million pilgrims had attended.
“This is the biggest figure for some time in Iraq,” he said. “It was a real test for our security forces and thanks be to God, they have succeeded.”
U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi cities last month as part of a security pact that paves the way for full withdrawal by 2012.
National elections loom in January and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has staked his reputation on better security.
Pilgrims dismantled the tents they had been using for shelter and prepared to walk home, some of them several miles.
The Kadhimiya site was surrounded by three rings of security personnel to search each pilgrim, and helicopters patrolled overhead. Cameras on air balloons monitored the site, the surveillance provided by the U.S. military at Iraq’s request.
Moussawi said not a single attack had happened in Khadimiya itself. But some bombers nonetheless managed to attack pilgrims in different parts of Baghdad as they travelled to the shrine.
Roadside bombs targeting groups of pilgrims in Zaafaraniya, southeastern Baghdad, killed two people and wounded many on Friday, police said, although an Interior Ministry source said none were killed. Other bombs placed on roads teeming with pilgrims wounded many in different districts. But the strong turnout was a sign of just how far security has come in Baghdad since the 2006 and 2007 sectarian conflict that nearly tore the country in apart.
In another such sign, pilgrim Abbas Jasem, 32, complained that “the government only planned the security but didn’t give pilgrims anything to eat or drink”.
Shi’ite gatherings are often targeted by Sunni Islamist al Qaeda. In April, suicide bombers killed 60 people by the shrine.
During the pilgrimage in 2005, rumours of a bombing on the Bridge of the Imams, leading to the shrine, triggered a stampede that killed 1,000, clogging the river below with bodies.