KARBALA, Iraq — Iraqi security forces oversaw the peaceful march Friday of more than 3 million Shiite Muslim worshippers who were honoring the birthday of one of their most important imams, the second large-scale religious event in the past month that was conducted safely without significant assistance from the American military.
Elsewhere in Iraq, however, a man driving a car equipped with explosives killed at least 36 people and wounded 100 at a mosque in Mosul, Iraqi police said. Three police were shot to death in Mosul, as well. Last week, bombs targeted seven mosques in Baghdad.
Insurgents targeted some of the worshippers at the Karbala festivities on their return trips. Two bombs exploded in Baghdad's Sadr City district, killing four people and wounding 15. Another one exploded between Karbala and Sadr City, killing two and wounding nine.
One more bomb exploded in an open-air market late Friday in west Baghdad, killing six people and wounding 30. Three of the dead were police officers on a patrol.
Iraqi and American officials view the attacks on pilgrims and mosques as a bid to ignite sectarian violence between Sunni Muslims and Shiites, the kind of conflict that pushed the country to the brink of civil war from 2006 to 2008.
They say they havent seen retaliation for the bombings, however, which they consider one of the goals of the attackers.
The populace isnt buying it, said Brig. Gen. Peter Bayer, the chief of staff of Multi-National Corps-Iraq. Youre not seeing a return to anything sectarian.
Festivities in Karbala began Thursday, when people gathered to celebrate Imam al Mahdi, a ninth-century religious leader who Shiites believe will return to save humanity.
The primary security fear for the worshipers didnt center on improvised explosives. Rather, they were concerned about an outbreak of swine flu. Saudi travelers diagnosed with the virus were quarantined at a Karbala hotel.
Im very happy Im here today, thanks to God, said Halima Naeem, 60, a pilgrim from Basra. The security is present and effective. Iraqis are able, and sparing no effort.
Last month, about 2 million Shiite worshipers visited a sacred shrine in Baghdads Khadamiya neighborhood without incident. Iraqi security forces supervised that celebration, as well.
Traffic began backing up for hours outside Karbala in all directions Thursday night. Inside the city, dense crowds circled the shrine of Imam Hussein, the grandfather of Imam al Mahdi. It took as long as two hours to walk the 250 yards around the shrine.
Some revelers clapped and danced to songs on the street under tent-like ribbons of colored lights.
Its very secure. With the presence of Prophet Muhammad and his grandsons" — the imams — "Iraqis are up to the task, said Ahmed Kamal, 30, who walked for two days to Karbala from the city of Hilla.
Hussein is a McClatchy special correspondent. Ashton reports for The Modesto (Calif.) Bee.
MORE ON MCCLATCHY
Read what McClatchy's Iraqi staff has to say at the Inside Iraq blog.