Shiite Pilgrimage Tests Iraq's Security Services

Baghdad is awash in pilgrims as hundreds of thousands of Shiite Muslims converge on the shrine of Imam Khadim, a revered Shiite leader, to commemorate his death in the year 799. It's the only major Shiite pilgrimage to Baghdad — most are focused on the holy cities of Kerbala and Najaf in the south. And it's been a major test of the government's security services. The pilgrims' route through the capital includes a Sunni neighborhood once infested with al-Qaida that saw bitter clashes during the sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007. On the final day of the annual event, there were several deadly attacks on the pilgrims.

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In Iraq this week, some two million Shiite pilgrims walked from all over the country to the shrine of Imam Moussa Kadhim in Baghdad. Other such pilgrimages in Iraq usually take place in the Shiite strongholds of the south. This one became a test of the security services in Baghdad.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from the Iraqi capital.

KELLY McEVERS: This is one of those parts of Baghdad where high concrete blast walls separate everything from everything else. The walls were built to keep Shiites and Sunnis apart during the civil war in 2006 and 2007.

(Soundbite of helicopters)

McEVERS: So we're following the trail of pilgrims into a neighborhood called Adhamiya. There's secret police, there are army, there are army helicopters flying over, there's regular police. This is one of the neighborhoods that was worst off during the sectarian fighting.

Worst off because it was a haven for Sunni insurgents. The problem now is that the road through here is the most direct route for Shiite pilgrims from Sadr City to get to the Kadhim shrine.

In the past, the neighborhood was closed to Shiite pilgrims. Then two years ago, a group called the Sons of Iraq joined forces with the American military to combat Sunni insurgents. Since then, things have calmed down.

Reporter Gasan Agnan(ph) says even when the neighborhood reopened to pilgrims, it was still considered dangerous for Shiites to walk through a Sunni area.

Mr. GASAN AGNAN (Reporter): They had this feeling that it wasn't secure enough, that maybe someone is going to blow up himself - a suicide. Or maybe a sniper will be here or there. But right now, no. See, they're more relaxed, sleeping on the ground, getting more water.

McEVERS: Water from cups, from bottles, bathtubs. And also fried potatoes, yogurt and sugared dates. One of these food stalls is set up in front of a house owned by a Sunni man who's provided a hose and access to his courtyard.

Mr. ABBAS RAJAFULK QINANI(ph): (Speaking foreign language)

McEVERS: You could call this a kind of solidarity between Sunnis and Shiites, says Abbas Rajafulk Qinani, a volunteer from Sadr City who's manning the tent. But he says it's also a way for the Shiites to offer protection to the Sunni man in case the pilgrims get out of hand.

Mr. QINANI: (Through Translator) He's feeling totally safe, as long as it's us here and as long as he's opening the front gates for us. So he's feeling totally safe, and he's living inside away from us.

McEVERS: After stopping at the tent, men, women, babies in strollers and even elderly people on crutches, shuffle toward the two golden domes of the Kadhim shrine. Shiites believe making the trip means their prayers will be answered.

On this day more than 1,200 years ago, Imam Moussa Kadhim is said to have been poisoned by the Sunni caliph. Songs tell how his body was left on a bridge near here that spanned the Tigris River.

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

McEVERS: During the same pilgrimage back in 2005, nearly a thousand people were killed in a stampede on a newer version of the bridge, after rumors spread that a suicide bomber was in the crowd.

Pilgrim Riyadh Yusef Jassam(ph) says he'll happily walk that bridge today. If he gets hurt, he says, he'll receive even more blessings in heaven.

Mr. RIYADH YUSEF JASSAM: (Through Translator) If something happens, as long as for the sake of religion, I'll be happy. I'll be happy because I'm doing something for God.

McEVERS: Looking around, we see young pilgrims wrapped in white shrouds, a message that they're ready to die. We decide it's time to turn back.

Later, after sundown, a suicide bomber killed two dozen pilgrims and wounded scores more. Then other bombs went off around the city. In all, 54 Shiite pilgrims died this week and more than 300 were injured. The first most deadly attack happened on the bridge.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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