Despite attacks, pilgrims in Iraq mark holy day

AP News
Posted: Dec 06, 2011 9:07 AM
Despite attacks, pilgrims in Iraq mark holy day

Iraqi police boosted security as hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims converged Tuesday on the holy city of Karbala for a 10-day religious ritual that regularly draws deadly attacks by Sunni extremists.

On Monday, five bomb attacks against the Shiite pilgrims killed 21 people, revealing the troubling gaps that remain in Iraq's security just weeks before all American forces must be out of the country under a Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline.

The violence continued for a second day Tuesday as a mortar shell struck near a Shiite mosque in the northern city of Kirkuk, killing one person and wounding four others.

In Karbala, south of the capital, rituals went peacefully due to the tight security measures taken by local authorities, said provincial council member Iftkhar Hadi.

Around 33,000 Iraqi troops were protecting the 1 million worshippers in Karbala, said provincial police spokesman Maj. Alaa Abbas.

"Until now, there is no security breach in Karbala and it is a message to the terrorist groups that our security forces are now able to preserve stability and to defend our people," he said.

During the Ashoura ritual, Shiites seek to cleanse the spirit and scourge the body in honor of their founding saint.

Ashoura marks the anniversary of the death in the seventh century of the Prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussein. His death in a battle outside Karbala sealed Islam's historic Sunni-Shiite split, which still bedevils the Middle East.

In Karbala, men wearing black or white robes pounded their chests, slashed their heads and beat their bloodied foreheads with the flat sides of swords and knives. Also, mourners were waving Shiite religious red and green flags as they were running toward the Imam Hussein holy shrine.

Karbala is 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Baghdad.

Shiite religious holidays like Ahsoura are routinely targeted by Sunni extremists who do not believe Shiites are true Muslims. Trying to stop those attacks remains especially difficult for the U.S.-trained Iraqi security forces, still struggling to protect their citizens more than eight years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.