BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government, acting on tips that car bombers were on the move with plans to kill Shiite Muslims during a major religious festival, imposed a scheduled curfew almost a day early and caught millions of residents off-guard — and, in some cases, without food.
No major incidents were reported as of Thursday night, but two policemen were injured while assaulting two gunmen who appeared poised to be shooting at pilgrims, police said.
As part of the religious holiday, the anniversary of the death of Imam Mousa al Kadhim, millions of Shiites traveled on foot from all corners of the country to a north Baghdad shrine named after the revered religious figure. Large crowds packed entire streets as pilgrims chanted, waved religious flags and sadly swayed to the melody of the chanting.
Shiite ceremonies are often sabotaged by Sunni insurgents who take advantage of the easy targets by shooting at walking pilgrims or setting off car bombs in the crowds. Fear of such attacks alone has caused disaster. During the 2005 pilgrimage, panic broke out among thousands of Shiites packed on a Baghdad bridge when false rumors spread of a suicide bomber. The ensuing stampede left nearly 1,000 people dead.
The curfew, halting all vehicular traffic, was to start at 10 p.m. Wednesday, the government announced Tuesday afternoon. Instead, officials imposed it 21 hours earlier, at around 1 a.m. Wednesday.
Residents who'd planned to stock up on food and fuel Wednesday had to shop at stores within walking distance. Commuters waiting for buses to pick them up discovered that they wouldn't be able to get to work unless they went on foot.
"We made do with what scraps we had on Wednesday," said Mohammed Abdul Ameer, a 46-year-old father of two who found himself without cooking materials or bread. "I had promised myself that I would not get caught in this way again."
A Shiite, Abdul Ameer said there are few shops within walking distance of his home, and he feared that Sunni gunmen would target him if he ventured too far.
Lt. Col. Christopher Garver, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition forces, said the heightened security measures were worth the extra hardship. He said the decision to impose — and dramatically move up — the curfew was made by the Iraqi government, though coalition forces worked closely with local officials.
Curfews are common in Baghdad. Sometimes they're imposed with only a few hours notice. But it's unusual for the government to announce that a curfew will begin at a certain time, and then implement it at a different time.
"Yes, we annoyed our people when the curfew was imposed for three days, but all this was to protect them," said Abdul Karim Khalaf, a spokesman for the Ministry of Interior.
Khalaf said the government moved up the curfew "to protect our people." He said that "no one will die from starvation" because they couldn't stock up on food.
Some residents said they approved of the government's actions.
"I think that changing the time of the curfew is a plan made by the government to confuse the gunmen who planned to attack the visitors of the holy shrine," said Nazar al Shimmari, a 36-year-old government employee in the Ministry of Trade.
But other residents said they're fed up.
"What kind of government is it that can't keep the peace in the city if there is a celebration?" asked Samir Nebeel, a married 29-year-old Sunni who works as a taxi driver to provide for his wife and baby.
(Collins reports for The Fresno Bee. McClatchy Newspapers special correspondents Sahar Issa, Jenan Hussein and Laith Hammoudi contributed to this report.)