Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims thronged a Baghdad shrine on Saturday to commemorate a Shiite saint. The largely peaceful event was seen as a key test for Iraq's security forces after the US military withdrew from cities across the country.
AFP - Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims thronged a Baghdad shrine on Saturday to commemorate a Shiite saint in a key test for Iraq's security forces less than three weeks after the US military withdrew from cities across the country.
Police and troops deployed heavily across the main routes to the northern Baghdad neighbourhood of Kadhimiyah, location of the shrine to Imam Mussa al-Kadhim, while army helicopters hovered overhead.
Guarding the ceremonies, which concluded late on Saturday, was a major milestone for Iraq's police and army after they assumed full control of security in urban areas from American forces at the end of June.
"The security forces accomplished their mission of protecting the millions of citizens who participated in commemorations," Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a statement.
"This success is important because it represented the first test for our security forces since they assumed complete responsibility in our cities," he said, adding that there was "no doubt regarding the capacity" of the police and army.
This year marks the first time since the US-led invasion in 2003 that the commemoration, which has been regularly targeted by insurgents and militias, has passed without a major incident, although a spate of bombings on Friday killed three pilgrims and wounded 38.
Shiites from across Iraq had streamed into the capital from mid-week for the ceremonies commemorating Imam Mussa al-Kadhim, the seventh of 12 Shiite imams, who died in a Baghdad prison in the eighth century.
"In previous years there has been a great deal of violence which prevented us from visiting the shrine," Adnan Abu Hussein, a pilgrim from Babil province in central Iraq, told AFP.
"But this year the security situation has improved; there haven't been any incidents so I've been able to come for the first time with my friends," the 41-year-old said, with his wife and children nearby.
The 15-kilometre (10-mile) procession route was packed with men, women and children, with tents erected along the way to provide food and water to pilgrims, an AFP journalist said.
The Iraqi army called in open-top trucks to ferry pilgrims from the shrine back to their home cities across the country later on Saturday.
"We have been receiving visitors for the fourth consecutive day and their numbers are in the millions," Fadhil al-Ambari, the shrine's custodian, said, noting that visitors from Arab and other countries were among the pilgrims.
Ambari's figures for the number of people who visited could not immediately be confirmed.
"This is the best proof that Iraqis are united in the face of terrorism and their (terrorists') attempts will fail," he said.
Friday's deaths and injuries resulted from six separate bomb attacks. On Thursday, eight pilgrims including three women were wounded by a bomb in central Baghdad.
But no major incidents were reported on Saturday despite the massive crowds.
The commemorations come less than three weeks after US troops withdrew from urban centres in line with a landmark security pact between Baghdad and Washington that calls for American forces to leave Iraq by the end of 2011.
Violence had dropped markedly throughout the country in recent months, but attacks increased in the run-up to the US military pullback, with 437 Iraqis killed in June -- the highest death toll in 11 months.
Date created : 2009-07-18