2 million pilgrims visit shrine as Iraqi security forces pass test

McClatchy NewspapersJuly 18, 2009 

BAGHDAD — Iraqi security forces passed their first big test minus American troops with flying colors -- and with veil-to-sandal searches of an estimated 2 million pilgrims at one of Shiite Islam's most sacred shrines.

Only one death and 48 injuries were reported Thursday through Saturday in incidents authorities tied to the pilgrimage to the Khadimiyah mosque in northwest Baghdad. On Friday, eight roadside bombs killed one man and injured 40 others in various parts of Baghdad.

"This is the first 100 percent Iraqi security plan to protect the pilgrims," Maj. Gen. Qassim Atta, the spokesman for Baghdad command operations, told Iraqi TV stations. "The forces are all Iraqis, even the helicopters above."

American support in the operation was minimal. Iraqi security forces, through their Baghdad Central Command, requested "limited enabling capabilities to support their security plan for the Khadimiya Shrine visit," said Army Lt. Col. Philip J. Smith, a U.S. military spokesman. The Iraqis asked for 60 pallets of bottled water, plus intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support.

Worshippers from as far away as Afghanistan prayed in huge crowds and carried coffins commemorating the imam, or holy man, who is buried there. They also slapped their chests in sadness for his death in the eighth century.

During four separate religious celebrations at the shrine since December, 133 people were killed and 266 wounded by car bombs, suicide bombers and an explosive device in a bag. Four years ago, about 1,000 people died during a stampede on a bridge near the site when a rumor of a suicide bomber panicked worshippers.

In the week ending July 16, Baghdad reported the highest number of bombings of any week this year.

But searches for this weekend's shrine visit in this mainly Shiite district began at checkpoints hundreds of miles south of the capital and continued to the outskirts of the shrine. They apparently weeded out most insurgents intent on violence. Between Najaf, 93 miles south of Baghdad, and the capital, 27 checkpoints were erected on the main highway used by pilgrims.

"They (insurgents) felt if they made any unusual moves, they would be pinpointed and caught," said a Ministry of Interior officer.

No vehicles were allowed within miles of the shrine, and blast walls and checkpoints funneled visitors into search areas. A partial curfew also was imposed in Baghdad on Friday and Saturday. A brigade from the Iraqi Federal Police (formerly the National Police) was responsible for protecting the Khadimiyah area, and they were joined by thousands of Iraqi army soldiers.

Near the shrine, police officers herded pilgrims into male and female lines and sent them into trailers and tents to be searched; women officers searched females. After being patted down and having their bags examined, everyone was then scanned with a sonar wand.

Men were allowed into the shrine while women stood on its grounds. The men sang such chants as "We follow them! We never left them!" referring to the 12 imams revered by Shiite Muslims, including the one buried at the Baghdad mosque. Women faced the shrine and read special prayers from printed sheets asking for divine reward.

On Thursday and again on Saturday, the Iraqi army flew some of its helicopters low over the shrine, and two U.S. choppers also provided surveillance on Thursday. One senior federal police officer said his men found Pepsi bottles filled with gasoline designed to be used as Molotov cocktails; baskets with a bomb inside that would be triggered by someone pulling out a piece of fruit; and bags of food containing explosives that could be detonated by a cell phone.

All the Iraqi law enforcement officials asked not to be named because they weren't authorized to talk to the press.

Because of the traffic ban, some men charged the equivalent of $2 to ferry pilgrims around the area in rickshaw-like rigs. One pilgrim, Salam Abed Jassim, at the shrine with his wife and two children, felt confident enough in Iraqi security forces to complain a bit.

"They shouldn't close the roads," he said. "The security is better and the state is stronger -- it's a shame people had to walk all this distance."

As ceremonies ended Saturday afternoon, the crowds began to stream out of the area. Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki had ordered army buses to nearby neighborhoods where they ferried pilgrims to other parts of Baghdad to find transportation back home. One soldier asked, "What does this have to do with soldiering?"

Maybe not much to do with soldiering, but a lot to do with citizens' safety.

(Tharp is the executive editor of the Merced (Calif.) Star-Sun. Special Baghdad correspondents Mohammed al Dulaimy, Jenan Hussein and Sahar Issa contributed.)

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Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at Inside Iraq.

McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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