Shiite Pilgrims Willingly Risk Lives for Faith

Shiite pilgrims converge on the holy the shrine/AP. i

Shiite pilgrims converge on the holy the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim in northern Baghdad on Thursday. Thousands of Shiite pilgrims made their annual march to commemorate the eighth-century death of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim, a key Shiite saint. Hadi Mizban/AP Photos hide caption

itoggle caption Hadi Mizban/AP Photos
Shiite pilgrims converge on the holy the shrine/AP.

Shiite pilgrims converge on the holy the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim in northern Baghdad on Thursday. Thousands of Shiite pilgrims made their annual march to commemorate the eighth-century death of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim, a key Shiite saint.

Hadi Mizban/AP Photos

Tens of thousands of Shiites faced potential danger on Thursday in their walk for hours, or even days, to perform an annual pilgrimage to the shrine of a much-loved Imam, or saint.

The pilgrims converged on a golden-domed mosque in northern Baghdad, under tight security. Guards checked every person before they crossed the green iron gates of the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim mosque. A city-wide driving ban was put into effect until early Saturday to prevent car bombings.

The ceremony honoring the anniversary of al-Kadhim's death is not one of the most important in the Shiite faith, but it has gained significance in Iraq because the ceremony was banned under Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime.

Now free to celebrate, pilgrims fill the boulevards as far as the eye can see. They form a river of people streaked with black from the robes of the women and dotted with flags – green for Islam, black for mourning and red for the blood of the martyrs.

The celebrations are not without risk. Each year since Saddam was overthrown the festivals have been plagued by terrorist attacks.

Two years ago an estimated 1,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede after reports spread that a suicide attacker was among them. It was the largest single loss of life since the U.S.-led invasion began in March of 2003.

Last year, snipers fired from rooftops as Shiite pilgrims passed through Sunni areas, killing at least 20 people and wounding dozens more.

So far this year seven pilgrims were killed and four wounded when gunmen in a speeding car opened fire and threw hand grenades at them as they were en route to Baghdad from the Dabouniyah area, 75 miles to the southeast.

Other scattered attacks have claimed a handful of pilgrim's and Iraqi soldier's lives.

Security is represented by police and Iraqi Army soldiers. Police and Army officers are spread from the Sinak Bridge all the way to Aden Square, one solider said. Sinak Bridge is where the stampede occurred two years ago. Some of the 1,000 killed were crushed and smothered, while other drowned when they were pushed off the bridge.

The Army is trying to control foot traffic better than in year past, but local television shows the bridge jammed with people. An ambulance and field clinic are ready, just in case.

Most pilgrims are not afraid of possible terrorist attacks. Some say it is because if you die during a religious observance you acquire a special status. For other, the river of people around gives a sense of invulnerability, a sense that no matter what happens, it is too big to be destroyed.

Some of the pilgrims come to make explicit political statements.

"I came representing the people who couldn't come to visit the Imam and ask him to get the invaders out of the country," said Hassan Hussein Sabour, a 23-year-old from Kut province, who walked seven hours to ask for a blessing. "I wish for better security and stability for this country."

Like Sabour, others express a good deal of anti-American sentiment. When a U.S. patrol passes, people in the crowd jeer and curse.

"It's the Americans who are behind this – they split us and manipulate us," said Alyah Shamchee, a pilgrim who was made a widow by the war. "We lost our kids, our young men – our lives are all changed and gone."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press.

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