MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
In Iraq, attacks against Shiites on a pilgrimage to the city of Karbala have killed at least 165 people over the past two days, hundreds more have been injured. The pilgrimage commemorates the martyrdom of the Imam Hussein in the 7th century. The bombings are blamed on Sunni extremists and more are expected to continue until the annual ritual ends this weekend.
But violence did not deter tens of thousands of other pilgrims who began there march to Karbala today. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has the story from Baghdad.
(Soundbite of music)
SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Sugary tea, steaming rice and chickpea stew is served to Shiite pilgrims who enter the striped tent in Baghdad's Karada neighborhood. Even the faithful who choose to pass by this rest stop are cared for by its pious managers.
Servants, servants, go get some juice to those people, one manager barks at a half dozen boys who scurry outside to hand off bottles of orange juice. Many of the marchers wear black and are draped in white cotton shrouds made of the same material used to bury the dead.
One 26-year-old pilgrim, Rafid Hussen(ph), welcomed the hospitality.
Mr. RAFID HUSSEN(ph): (Through translator) These good people are giving us everything. We thank God for their kindness. Everyone is cooperative.
NELSON: But despite such good will, the trek is being marred by carnage similar to that suffered by Imam Hussein himself and his party who were killed near Kerbala more than 1,300 years ago. The most deadly attacks have been near checkpoints where food and water is handed out.
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NELSON: In the southern Baghdad's suburb of Sadia today gunmen open fire on pilgrims. The Iraqi TV broadcast shows police firing back. But marchers carrying banners hurried past, refusing to be steered away from their course. One unidentified pilgrim shouted to the TV reporter that performing his religious duty in memory of Imam Hussein was more important than staying alive.
Unidentified Man: (Through translator) In the past, the tyrant used to do the same thing. And today, it's the terrorists, the Saddam lovers, the infidels and the foreigners who are doing this to us.
(Soundbite of people shouting)
NELSON: Surprisingly, no one was hurt in this melee. But hours later a suicide car bomber plowed into a nearby police checkpoint, killing one pilgrim and seven policemen. The mounting death toll is sure to stoke sectarian hatred at a time when the Iraqi government and U.S. troops are trying to stop the country from sinking deeper into civil war.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, quickly condemned the violence in a statement. He said he is outraged at the cowardly and brutal acts of violence. And Abdul Aziz Hakim, the powerful cleric who leads Iraq's dominant Shiite political block, blames Sunni extremists and Saddam Hussein loyalists for the killings.
Mr. ABDUL AZIZ AL-HAKIM (United Iraqi Alliance): (Through translator) These powers have proved to be the bitter enemies of the people and are standing against their interests. They commit these crimes against innocent people who are an easy target.
NELSON: But another powerful Shiite cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, blamed the American presence in Iraq for leading to these attacks. Sadr, in a statement, called on U.S. troops to leave Iraq so that al-Qaida and other extremists wouldn't feel the need to be here.
Some pilgrims lamented the absence of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, which in the past has provided security during the trek. Pilgrim Karim Diyap(ph).
Mr. KARIM DIYAP(ph): (Through translator) I welcome the Mahdi Army and any other group that can protect us. The Baghdad security plan is just beginning so we don't expect too much from it at the moment.
NELSON: The U.S.-led security plan has forced the Mahdi Army to go underground in recent weeks. Nevertheless, Diyab and Seyad Jihad al-Musawi(ph), who runs the Karada tent, say nothing will deter the march.
Mr. SEYAD JIHAD AL-MUSAWI(ph): (Through translator) To tell you the truth, what we do for Imam Hussein has been going around for hundreds of years. This year's bad conditions only strengthen the turn out.
NELSON: Despite the danger, news reports this evening say more than a million marchers have already made their way to Kerbala.
Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Baghdad.
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