Baghdad — Undeterred by a string of attacks that left scores of fellow pilgrims dead, Shiite worshipers completed their days-long march to a Baghdad shrine on Thursday.
Despite a deployment of 200,000 Iraqi police and security forces to prevent violence, at least 68 pilgrims died and 449 were wounded in more than a dozen militant attacks over three days. Keeping safe hundreds of thousands of marchers was a test of Iraqi capabilities in the run-up to September 1, the date by which all U.S. combat forces are to have left Iraq.
But explosives found their way among the columns of devotees, often carried by women, whom pilgrims said received only cursory searches, if any at all. The single largest death toll of 28 dead and 136 wounded was caused by a woman suicide bomber who wore an explosive vest beneath her long abaya.
IRAQI SECURITY BETTER PLANNED THIS YEAR
Violence, most often at the hands of Sunni insurgents like Al Qaeda in Iraq, has plagued every Shiite march in Iraq at least since 2004.
Despite the risks, many pilgrims walked days to reach the dual gilt domes of the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, to mark the revered 8th-century man's death.
"We have death in our calculations," said Iman Hussein, a Baghdad mother who said she was unafraid on Thursday, the last day of the march. One of her sons made two visits to the shrine this week. "When we step out on this path of pilgrimage, they will not stop us. On the contrary, (the attacks) strengthen our resolve."
Hussein said the march was well organized, with hundreds of way stations providing water, food, and rest in Baghdad and on roads leading to the Iraqi capital. On her route across Baghdad, Hussein said pilgrims were not searched until they approached the northern district of Kadhimiya - site of the shrine where Imam Musa and his grandson, the seventh and ninth of Shiite Islam's 12 imams, respectively, are buried.
"The plan this year was much better than plans of previous years," said an Iraqi Army officer who took part in the security operation and could not be named.
"But I do have some reservations, because there were no security checks for the pilgrims outside Kadhimiya, especially searches for women," said the officer in an interview. "I believe that most of the explosives were planted by women because they carry plastic bags, handbags, and other items - especially if they have children."
PILGRIM DOESN'T BLAME IRAQI UNITS
The death toll might yield lessons for the security efforts at future religious events, added the officer, but should not be seen as a credible indicator less than two months before US combat forces leave Iraq.
"Pilgrimage is not a standard case where we can actually gauge the capability of the security forces, because it is an exceptional situation," said the officer. "Yes, the Iraqi forces need more training and better weapons, but in their short experience they are doing very well. If progress continues, and they get the proper training, arms - and ethical training with it, to be able to interact well with the Iraqi people - then we have achieved our goal."
Regardless of the death toll, pilgrims were defiant as they completed their march on Thursday and headed back home.
"It is like a treasure. I am not the loser by going on this pilgrimage. I am the winner," said Hussein, the pilgrim mother. She did not blame Iraqi units for not stopping the explosions. "Security forces can secure the streets. They cannot cleanse intentions and hearts."
(Issa is a McClatchy special correspondent)