Iraqi officials have mounted an extensive security operation to protect nearly five million Shia pilgrims converging on the holy city of Karbala after three days of deadly attacks. The religious celebration will reach its climax on Monday.
AFP - Iraqi security forces, including snipers and undercover agents, have deployed in force in Karbala to protect millions of Shiite pilgrims gathered for a ceremony already blighted by deadly bombings, police said on Sunday.
Pilgrims have since last week been swarming from across Iraq to the holy city, 110 kilometres (70 miles) south of Baghdad, for Monday's Arbaeen ceremony, many making the journey on foot.
At least 46 people have been killed in four attacks since Wednesday targeting worshippers, including eight pilgrims who died in a bomb attack near a revered Karbala shrine.
"Police and the army are on alert," Karbala provincial police chief Ali Jassem Mohammed told AFP.
"About 30,000 police and soldiers, some of them plainclothes police and snipers, have been deployed," he said, adding that security cameras have been installed at key junctions around the city's shrines and along the roads.
He said 1,500 policewomen were in charge of searching female pilgrims.
Arbaeen marks 40 days after the Ashura anniversary of the killing of Imam Hussein by Sunni caliph Yazid's armies in AD 680.
Karbala provincial governor Akeel al-Khazali estimated on Sunday that more than 10 million people have already arrived in the city for the ceremony, including 150,000 Shiites from abroad.
It was impossible to confirm the figure which would make it five times bigger than the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
On Friday, 35 people, mostly women and children, were killed when a female suicide bomber blew herself up in a rest-stop refreshment tent set up in the town of Iskandiriyah, south of Baghdad on the road to Karbala.
The use of female suicide attackers has become a feared terror tactic in Iraq.
Earlier this month, police announced the arrest of a woman who had confessed to recruiting more than 80 such suicide bombers and who helped orchestrate dozens of attacks.
Friday's bomber was dressed in an abaya, the traditional Muslim head-to-toe black garment, allowing her to conceal her explosives belt prior to detonating herself.
It was the deadliest attack of the year in Iraq, along with a bombing almost six weeks ago in northern Baghdad with the same death toll.
Interior ministry spokesman Abdul Karim Khalaf said it and the attack that killed eight Shiite worshippers and wounded more than 50 near Karbala's revered Imam Hussein shrine on Thursday bore "the imprint of Al-Qaeda."
A blast near the same shrine 11 months ago killed 43 people.
On Wednesday, deadly bombings again targeting Shiites near a Baghdad bus station killed 16 people as violence across Iraq on that day claimed at least 27 lives and broke a relative lull since largely peaceful elections on January 31.
Iraq has experienced steadily improving security in the past year, but the latest attacks have underscored the country's fragile security situation.
Shiite pilgrims heading to Karbala for Arbaeen have been targetted and killed by Sunni insurgent groups in past years, adding to sectarian bloodshed that has seen tens of thousands killed since the US-led invasion of March 2003.
Date created : 2009-02-15