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Millions mark Shi'ite ritual in Iraq without incident
KERBALA, Iraq |
KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - More than two million Shi'ite pilgrims descended on Iraq's holy city of Kerbala on Friday to commemorate the death of a medieval Shi'ite cleric, with no major violence reported amid tight security.
Shi'ites from across Iraq, along with thousands of foreign pilgrims -- most dressed in black -- streamed into Kerbala to mark Ashura, an emotive ritual in which the faithful beat their heads and chests and gash their heads with swords to mourn the slaying of Imam Hussein at the battle of Kerbala in 680.
The event defines Shi'ism and its split from Sunni Islam.
"According to official statistics, there are more than two million Iraqi pilgrims and 248,000 foreign pilgrims who have entered Kerbala city," said Mohammed al-Moussawi, head of the Kerbala provincial council.
Security officials assigned thousands of police officers and soldiers to protect the pilgrims as they headed to Hussein's shrine in Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad. Authorities imposed a city-wide ban on cars and motorcycles to help prevent attacks.
Securing the event was a key test for Iraqi security forces, who have taken over responsibility for protecting the country as U.S. troops withdraw 7-1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion and with no new government in place nine months after an inconclusive parliamentary election.
"More than 28,000 police officers have been deployed to protect pilgrims in addition to the troops that support security in the towns around Kerbala," Major-General Othman al-Ghanimi, chief commander of the Iraqi army in Kerbala, told Reuters.
In a statement, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki thanked the security forces and urged them to remain on alert "to deprive the terrorists of any opportunity and to foil their plans aimed at igniting sectarian strife and undermining security and stability."
While overall violence has fallen sharply in Iraq as sectarian bloodshed receded over the past two years, a weakened, yet stubborn, Sunni Islamist insurgency continues to stage regular attacks.
Pilgrimages such as Ashura have often been marred by violence since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and bombings and attacks still occur daily.
In the last six days, at least 20 people have been killed and 90 wounded in bombings across Iraq, including suicide attacks, most of them targeting Shi'ite pilgrims.
Suicide bombings are a hallmark of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, which regards Shi'ite Muslims as apostates due to their veneration of Hussein and Prophet Mohammad's family, who are respected but not held in the same regard by Sunnis.
"Despite security threats, I do not expect any security breach to occur as a result of strict security measures," Subhi Ahmed, a 60-year-old Iraqi pilgrim who came from Canada, said.
Security forces also carried out pre-emptive arrests of people suspected of planning attacks on pilgrims inside and around the city of Kerbala.
"We have arrested 14 suspects around the perimeters of the city and we have seized four who were setting up roadside bombs," Moussawi said.
Religious events like Ashura have come to symbolise a show of strength for Iraq's Shi'ite majority after the toppling of Sunni leader Saddam Hussein, who placed strict limitations on the traditional pilgrimage to Kerbala in which many Shi'ite travellers walk for several days to reach the city.
"I expect that attacks will occur against pilgrims, but not like previous years. Security forces are doing their jobs as professionally as possible," said 34-year-old Ammar Hassoun, who came to Kerbala on foot from Baghdad.
(Reporting and writing by Muhanad Mohammed in Baghdad; Editing by Serena Chaudhry and Elizabth Fullerton)
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