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Mass pilgrimage to Baghdad mostly peaceful

Insurgents launch scattered strikes at Shi'ite event

Pilgrims gathered yesterday at Kadhimiya Shrine in Baghdad during a Shi'ite religious ritual. Hundreds of thousands made the trek. Pilgrims gathered yesterday at Kadhimiya Shrine in Baghdad during a Shi'ite religious ritual. Hundreds of thousands made the trek. (Thaier al-Sudani/Reuters)

BAGHDAD -- Hundreds of thousands of Shi'ites marched to a gold-domed mosque in harsh heat and sun yesterday in a pilgrimage of devotion to an eighth-century saint that also starkly demonstrated their political power.

Only scattered strikes by Sunni insurgents marred the event, held amid tight security to avoid the attacks that have occurred during past gatherings.

"Long live Moqtada!" some pilgrims shouted as they paraded toward the Imam al-Kadhim shrine, referring to radical Shi'ite leader Moqtada al Sadr, whose Mahdi army is accused of death squad attacks. "May God kill his enemies!"

A few shook their fists at US soldiers standing alongside the procession route, but the march was mostly peaceful.

Many said they intended their presence to show they could not be intimidated by Sunni insurgents who have devastated past gatherings, and who regularly target Shi'ites at markets and on buses.

"I have come here to get the blessing of the martyr imam and to challenge the terrorism of the Wahhabists," said Hussein Mizaal, a 21-year-old college student from southeastern Baghdad.

He was referring to the austere Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, practiced mostly in Saudi Arabia but also identified with Sunni insurgents.

"We are not afraid of anyone except God," Mizaal said.

The march comes as Iraq's government remains sharply divided, unable to meet key US-sought benchmarks such as a new oil law. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki of Iraq, a Shi'ite who heads the unity government but is accused of bias by Sunnis, was in Iran to talk about security and electricity deals.

Separately, the US military announced the deaths of two Marines in Anbar Province west of Baghdad -- one in fighting and the other in a noncombat incident. Both died Tuesday.

In addition, two British soldiers were killed early yesterday by a roadside bombing in southern Iraq, north of the Rumaylah oil fields, the Ministry of Defense said.

At the meetings in Tehran, Iranian officials told Maliki they were doing all they could to help stabilize his nation, but insisted that only a US pullout would bring true peace.

Maliki told reporters later that he did not discuss the issue of US forces with the Iranians.

In Baghdad, the heat soared to 115 degrees as the religious event unfolded.

Residents used garden hoses to spray cool water over pilgrims, many of whom began their journey -- on foot -- days ago from Shi'ite cities in southern Iraq. Men draped wet towels over their heads and necks.

Guards checked pilgrims as they reached the green iron gates of the mosque, but in some spots the crush of the crowd was so thick that chaos reigned.

A citywide driving ban also was in effect until early tomorrow to prevent suicide car bombings.

Nevertheless, there were scattered attacks: Seven pilgrims were killed when gunmen in a speeding car opened fire and threw hand grenades at them in the Dabouniya area, southeast of Baghdad, as they headed to the pilgrimage, Kut police said.

Gunmen also opened fire on Iraqi soldiers guarding pilgrims in the Yarmouk neighborhood in western Baghdad. The soldiers returned fire, killing one attacker.

The same festival was struck by tragedy two years ago when an estimated 1,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede over a bridge after panic that a suicide attacker was among them. And last year, snipers killed at least 20 people as the pilgrims walked through Sunni areas.

Iraqi officials estimated the crowd at 3 million, but it was impossible to verify the numbers.

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