Sniper Attacks Kill 20 Shiite Pilgrims in Baghdad

A series of sniper attacks in Baghdad left at least 20 Shiite pilgrims dead and 300 wounded, despite intense security measures to protect the tens of thousands who had gathered for a religious festival. The same festival turned deadly a year ago after rumors of suicide bombers triggered a stampede.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

In Baghdad today, a series of attacks targeted Shiite pilgrims at a religious festival. Snipers killed at least 20 people and wounded more than 300. This same festival turned deadly a year ago after rumors of suicide bombers triggered a stampede.

This year's violence comes despite intense security measures, including a ban on car traffic intended to protect the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in the capital this weekend. But even the security forces were at odds.

NPR's Corey Flintoff has this report.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

Clusters of Shiite pilgrims make their way through the streets, men carrying flags, the green of Islam, black for the Shia, red for blood and sacrifice.

(Soundbite of chanting)

FLINTOFF: It's hot like the blast from a furnace, but the streets are free from the roar of traffic and they smell of dust rather than smog. From a big tent in the Carata(ph) district, children call to the pilgrims, offering them water.

Nafar Rahim al-Yari(ph) was among the volunteers, sweating as they stacked cases of water, soda drinks and food.

Mr. NAFAR RAHIM AL-YARI (Volunteer): (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: The 42-year-old auto parts dealer says it's a religious duty to care for people who come so far to commemorate what he calls this glorious occasion.

The occasion is the death of Imam Mussa al-Kadam, an 8th century Shiite cleric said to have been poisoned on the orders of the Kalif(ph), his political rival.

Last year's festival ended in disaster when rumors of a suicide bomb triggered a stampede that killed around 1,000 people, the largest civilian fatality since the invasion.

Mr. AL-YARI: (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Nafar al-Yari praises the government for posing the ban on cars, but unfortunately it didn't protect the hundreds of Shiites who were shot today. Throughout the day, reports trickled in of ambushes and snipers, gunmen who opened fire on the pilgrims as they walked for miles through Sunni controlled neighborhoods in Baghdad.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

FLINTOFF: In the central Baghdad neighborhood of Carata, security was enforced by rival groups: the Americans from the air and on the ground the Mahdi army, a militia loyal to the radical cleric, Moqtada al Sadr. The Mahdi fighters stand in the street, Kalashinkov rifles draped from their shoulders. The Iraqi police are off to one side under the shade of the trees.

Mr. JAMIL KALOV(ph) (Policeman): (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: Policeman Jamil Kalov says he's protecting the visitors but that the police don't have enough vehicles or gas to deal with emergencies.

Occasionally, the heat and the danger bring out the hostility between the two sides.

A policeman demands to know what the hell the Mahdi army is doing here. He and a militia fighter punch each other furiously. A bystander yells, Shame on you. Another bystander calls on them to stop the fighting for the sake of the Imam that this festival honors. The fighters break off.

Monsur Nasar(ph), a volunteer at the water tent, says he's aware of the danger here: tens of thousands of Shiites marching in the streets, an easy target for sectarian rivals. But Monsur says he's determined to carry on the observance no matter what.

Mr. MONSUR NASSAR (Volunteer): (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: The 50-year-old driver says nothing can scare the Shia or distract them, not the terrorists, not the Tekfiryim(ph), the most radical of Sunni fundamentalists.

There are signs of how high sectarian tensions are.

(Soundbite of singing)

FLINTOFF: Some of the pilgrims break into a radical Shiite battle song, promising to wipe out a Sunni town south of Baghdad. But the vast majority of pilgrims are peaceful and say no amount of violence will stop their religious journey.

Um Kasa(ph) sums it up this way...

Ms. UM KASA (Pilgrim): (Speaking foreign language)

FLINTOFF: I shall never stop making this pilgrimage until I die as a martyr, she says.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News. Baghdad.

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