BAGHDAD (AFP) -Security forces were on high alert as hundreds of thousands of Shiite devotees marched into Baghdad to mark the death of a revered imam, a year after a stampede killed nearly 1,000 pilgrims.
Men, women and children carrying green and yellow flags and Korans walked into the capital from across Iraq Saturday — many of them barefoot — defying fears of sectarian attacks and vowing not to be intimidated by Sunni insurgents.
Seven pilgrims were shot dead late Friday as they walked through a Sunni suburb, a reminder of Baghdad’s sectarian tension at a time when police expect more than a million devotees to gather for the annual ritual.
Last year at least 965 pilgrims were crushed or drowned in the Tigris River when a stampede broke out after rumours that a suicide bomber was in the midst of the crowd heading towards the shrine of Imam Musa Kadhim.
Musa Kadhim was the seventh imam of Shiite Islam. He was poisoned in prison in Baghdad 12 centuries ago and his tomb has become a place of pilgrimage.
Last year’s tragedy did not seem to have scared off the members of Iraq’s majority Shiite community as they arrived in Baghdad to attend Sunday’s march.
“I do not care if I die. I would come here at the risk of having my head chopped off. It would be a great honour to die on the day Musa Kadhim died” said Kadhim Handel, 50, from Baghdad’s Sadr City district, a Shiite bastion.
Another survivor of last year’s disaster, Ismail Qassem from Al-Hussainiyah on the outskirts of Baghdad, said: “I expect more people this year as the tragedy has strengthened our determination.”
Bushra Siwan, 45, an Iraqi visiting the city from her home in exile in Jordan, had been planning to stay away from the march from safety, but said she had been overcome with the atmosphere as pilgrims gathered.
“I came to Baghdad a week ago to see to some family business and had decided not to attend this pilgrimage, but I changed my mind and here I am. It has been safe so far but if my children come to know they will be mad at me,” she said.
The large numbers of pilgrims gathering in Baghdad — 24 hours before the actual ritual — left even the heads of security forces surprised.
“We did not expect them to come in such large numbers this morning. I think this year we may see several million pilgrims, which means it will require increased security measures,” said Brigadier Jabbar Memjhed of the Iraqi army.
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 rally has dispersed.
National police chief Major General Adnan Thabit told AFP that pedestrians would be allowed to move within their own districts but pilgrims in the city will be limited to two tightly controlled routes across the river.
Only two of the bridges linking mainly-Shiite east Baghdad to the mainly-Sunni west of the city will be open, Thabit said.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office urged pilgrims to “cooperate with the security forces” and not to bring children to the shrine “and imposed a strict restriction on carrying weapons, mobile phones and handbags.”
Pilgrims arriving from outside Baghdad said they had been protected and fed along the route by militamen from the Mehdi Army, an unofficial force loyal to the radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
“The Mehdi Army played a big role in providing security and also gave food to us,” said Ahmad Fuad, a shopkeeper from the southern town of Kut, who walked the 175 kilometres (110 miles) to Baghdad in four days.
One year on from last year’s deadly stampede, Baghdad is even more tense than before. Daily insurgent bomb attacks target crowds of Shiite civilians, while death squads hunt members of the rival Sunni community.
Health officials put the average daily death toll at 50.
Iraqi and US forces have deployed more than 30,000 troops under an ambitious security plan designed to return order to the war-torn capital.
The US military also announced that security forces had arrested leaders of three Shiite death squads suspected to have killed more than 40 Sunni Arabs in the capital’s Al-Jihad neighbourhood on July 9.
Elsewhere, in Iraq’s southern city of Diwaniyah, rebels killed four Iraqi soldiers and wounded four others in a roadside bomb attack Saturday, a defence ministry official said.