BAGHDAD — For the first time since bombs ripped apart the sacred golden dome of the ancient mosque in Samarra in 2006, millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims returned to worship Friday.
They were commemorating the death 1,100 years ago of Imam Hassan al Askari, who's buried in the shrine. Askari was a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad.
The pilgrimage, which took place without bomb or gun attacks, was another sign that the sectarian hatred that the dome bombing spurred, which threatened to rip the country apart, has calmed. The golden dome is a holy site, primarily to Shiites, in a predominantly Sunni Muslim city.
Many among the estimated 2 million to 3 million pilgrims who streamed to the ruins of the shrine praised their Sunni hosts. They said tribal leaders in the area had put up tents filled with free food, drink and medical care along the roads leading to the holy site. Pilgrims said the security presence was so strong that they spent the day without fear.
Most pilgrims made the trip in packed buses, some traveling 14 hours.
Hassan Jawad, however, who's 40 and blind, walked 75 miles from Baghdad.
"This pilgrimage is part of our national reunification," he said. "How beautiful for all Iraqis — Shiite and Sunni — to share a common prayer."
It was also the latest showcase for Muqtada al Sadr, the firebrand Shiite cleric, who's studying to become a religious leader in Iran. Iraqi officials had predicted that as many as a million pilgrims might make the trip, but then Sadr urged his followers a week ago to join the pilgrimage. Iraqi observers have noted that attendance perhaps tripled expectations.
Um Shakair, 55, said the trip was worth it. She didn't want her full name used for security reasons.
"I saw respect for brothers, which I hadn't seen for years," she said. "Thank God these hopes and wishes have been achieved, and the sectarian violence is at an end."
Mohammed Abdul Karim, 34, said that security might have been too tight. He complained that the route through Samarra was lined with blast walls and pilgrims were funneled through without making contact with locals.
"That Samarra is secure was an unexpected surprise for us," he said. "But to unite the people, the walls must come down."
(Hassan Jassim, a McClatchy special correspondent, contributed to this report from Samarra. Schofield reports for The Kansas City Star. )
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