BAGHDAD (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims converged Tuesday on a golden-domed shrine in northern Baghdad to commemorate the death of a revered eighth century saint as troops tightened security after a wave of deadly attacks across Iraq.
Violence across the country has shot up to its highest level in years over the past two months, raising fears that Iraq is descending into a new round of widespread sectarian violence.
Several thousand policemen and soldiers were deployed in Baghdad to secure the streets as Shiite faithful made their way to the northern neighborhood of Kazimiyah, where Imam Moussa al-Kadhim is buried, said Interior Ministry spokesman Lt. Col. Saad Maan Ibrahim.
Pilgrims have to undergo several searches before they reach the gates of the shrine, which have been tightly guarded even before the latest wave of bloodshed.
Many of the main streets in the Iraqi capital were closed in recent days to prevent attacks on the pilgrims, who travel on foot, and authorities last week took the drastic step of banning cars with temporary license plates from the roads altogether. The ownership of such cars is difficult to trace, and authorities fear they are more likely to be used in car bombings.
No significant attacks were reported during Tuesday's processions, Ibrahim said.
According to the United Nations, at least 1,045 Iraqi civilians and security personnel were killed in May. The tally surpassed the one of 712 killed in April, making May the deadliest month recorded since June 2008.
Ahmed Mustafa, a truck driver from eastern Baghdad, arrived at the Shiite shrine on Tuesday morning after walking with his brother all night long, stopping and waiting at security checkpoints and wending their way through the Iraqi capital to avoid closed streets.
"We decided to take the journey despite all the security fears because we felt that this pilgrimage is an important religious duty that should be done regardless of any possible risks," he said.
In Kazimiyah, ambulances were deployed around the shrine inside while helicopters hovered overhead.
At one point along the route in the central commercial district of Karradah, tents were set up to provide shade and medical services — including tending to blistered feet. Police did pat-down searches of pilgrims as volunteers offered up tea and sprayed them with a cooling water mist.
Some pilgrims pushed strollers laden with juice boxes. Others hobbled along on crutches.
Shiites walk for hours, and often for days, from across the country to reach the mosque in Kazimiyah, known for its twin golden domes.
The revered Imam Moussa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, who died in 799, was the seventh of 12 principal Shiite saints. The mosque was built atop what were believed to be the tombs of al-Kadhim and his grandson.
An interior ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to media, said the number of pilgrims appeared down from previous years, attributing this to the deteriorating security situation.
But Ibrahim, the ministry spokesman, denied any decline in visitor numbers. He said many pilgrims decided to visit the shrine earlier in the week to avoid big crowds. Later Tuesday, crowds grew thicker as evening approached and the heat of the day abated.
One of those who stayed away from Kazimiyah was Rhida Abbas, a teacher from the Shiite neighborhood of Sadr City, who said he decided not to make the pilgrimage at the urging of his wife and his two daughters who feared for his safety.
"I have a good reason not to take the risk," he said. "I am the father of two daughters and I do not want them to be orphans."
Associated Press writer Adam Schreck contributed to this report.