BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims made their way on foot to a shrine in the north of Baghdad on Thursday hoping for safety at an annual ritual marred by violence in the past two years.
Pilgrims waved flags, chanted and beat their chests in a traditional Shiite gesture of ritual mourning. Others carried the symbolic green coffin of Imam Musa Kadhim, a Shiite martyr imprisoned and poisoned in Baghdad 1,200 years ago. Many had walked for days in intense summer heat to reach the shrine where Kadhim is buried. As they neared it they walked past tents offering juice and dates. “It is not like last year. This year it is secure,” said Abd Sirhan, 37, who had walked for two days in plastic sandals from his home town of Azazir 80 km (50 miles) south of Baghdad. He said the entire route appeared to be safe, with pilgrims guarded by Iraqi police and army checkpoints tended by well-wishers offering water and food. As he spoke, a truck rumbled past with youths tossing bottles of water and bananas to pilgrims on the street. Two years ago, nearly 1,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede on a bridge near the shrine sparked by rumours of a suicide bomber, the single most deadly incident since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Last year gunmen, some on rooftops, ambushed pilgrims on the way to the shrine, killing 20 and wounding 300. But this year police said there were no reports of violence by noon (0800 GMT) when the pilgrimage reached its height at the gold-domed shrine.
Um Khaled, a woman in black Islamic clothes, said she had made the pilgrimage every year and would not let the threat of violence stop her: “Of course, I am afraid. But God willing I will come home safe.”
To protect pilgrims from attack, authorities in Baghdad ordered a three-day curfew banning all vehicles from Wednesday morning. Shops were shuttered throughout the city and away from the pilgrimage route streets were deserted.
The pilgrimage followed a day of angry funerals in Baghdad’s Shiite slum of Sadr City, where the United States said it had killed an estimated 30 Shiite militants linked to Iran in an air strike on Wednesday. Hospitals put the air strike’s death toll at 13, including at least one woman.
The annual pilgrimage, in honour of one of the 12 imams revered by Shiites, has attracted 1 million people or more in the years since the fall of Sunni Arab ruler Saddam, with many making their way from the far south of the country.
In 2005, pilgrims crossing a bridge between Kadhimiya and the mainly Sunni Arab neighbourhood across the Tigris were suddenly engulfed by panic triggered by rumours of an attack. Nearly 1,000 died, clogging the Tigris river with corpses. This year, that bridge and another nearby are closed, and a third bridge was destroyed by bombers. The procession instead passed over bridges in the centre of the city that are considered safer.