Iraqi Shiites perform a religious ceremony called ” Latmiya” as they head towards Shiite Imam Musa al-Kazim’s shrine in the al-Kazimiah district north of Baghdad. Security forces are on high alert as hundreds of thousands of Shiite devotees marched into Baghdad to mark the death of a revered imam, a year after a stampede killed nearly 1,000 pilgrims
Shiite pilgrims pour into Baghdad
Friday, 10 August 2007 Millions of Shiite pilgrims converged on a golden-domed shrine in northern Baghdad on Thursday, some beating their heads and chests with their hands and others lamenting in groups to honor an eighth century saint known for his piety, humility and ability to restrain his anger. Imam Musa Al-Kadhim, the fifth descendant of the Holy Prophet of Islam and the seventh Imam of the Twelver-Shiites, was imprisoned and later killed by the ruler of the Muslim caliphate in 799 AD.
The procession on Thursday took place under tight security with guards checking each pilgrim as they reached the green iron gates of the Imam Musa Al-Kadhim mosque and a citywide driving ban in effect until early Saturday to prevent suicide car bombings.
Shiite religious festivals have become easy targets for Wahhabi insurgents trying to provoke an all-out civil war between Iraq’s main Muslim groups. This festival was struck by tragedy two years ago, when an estimated 1,000 pilgrims were killed in a stampede after reports spread that a suicide attacker was among them — the biggest single loss of life since the U.S.-led war began in March 2003.
The festival also faced violence last year when snipers firing from rooftops and a cemetery killed at least 20 people and wounded dozens in a series of attacks on the pilgrims as they walked through Sunni areas.
Still, women shrouded in black abayas and men of all ages walked for hours or even days from holy cities south of Baghdad and volatile Diyala province to the north to reach the mosque with twin golden domes and four minarets that sparkled in the unrelenting summer sun. Boats ferried pilgrims across the Tigris to the eastern banks in the neighborhood of Kazamiyah.
“I have come here to get the blessing of the martyr imam and to challenge the terrorism of the Wahhabists,” said Hussein Mizaal, a 21-year-old college student from southeastern Baghdad. “We are not afraid of anyone except God. Our faith is getting stronger despite their mean attacks,” he said, referring to the austere Wahhabi sect of Sunni Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia.
In scattered attacks reported by police, seven pilgrims were killed and four wounded when gunmen in a speeding car opened fire and threw hand grenades at them as they were en route to Baghdad from the Dabouniyah area, 75 miles to the southeast.
Gunmen fired on Iraqi soldiers guarding pilgrims in the predominantly Sunni neighborhood of Yarmouk in western Baghdad, prompting a battle and panic that left one attacker dead and one soldier and three pilgrims wounded.
A bomb exploded near the house of a Shiite family, killing a man and his wife, and wounding three, including a 5-year-old child, in the volatile, religiously mixed neighborhood of Baiyaa in western Baghdad,
A Shiite pilgrim also was killed and six others injured when a fire broke out on a train running from central Baghdad to Kazimiyah. Police said the blaze was due to an electrical problem.
The ceremony honoring the anniversary of Al-Kadhim’s death is important in the Shiite faith, and has gained increase significance in Iraq since such commemmorations and expressions of public sorrow were banned under Saddam Hussein’s regime, which looked upon these gatherings as threats to the regime.
Imam Musa ibn Jaafar Al-Kadhim, who died in the year 799, was the seventh of 12 principal Shiite saints, known for his patience and his ability to suppress his anger. The mosque was built atop the tombs of Al-Kadhim and his grandson, Imam Muhammad Al-Jawad.
Crowds waved green Islamic flags and the Iraqi standard as they massed around the mosque in the Kazimiyah neighborhood. Green coffins symbolizing the imam were carried overhead and pilgrims reached out to touch the walls of the mosque.
Parents put green headbands or armbands on their babies, and men linked arms as they walked down the street. People rushed to help lift wheelchairs and strollers over checkpoint barriers.
Tents strung with colored lights and flowers provided shade and water, while vendors offered pilgrims egg sandwiches, soup, yogurt and tea. Many pilgrims had arrived a day early and slept in the street or in tents provided for women.
Loudspeakers played religious eulogies across the city of 6 million people.
Haider Farhan, 23, was finally beginning his trek from Sadr City to the shrine after spending most of Wednesday distributing food to pilgrims along the route.
“I am so tired, but I am determined to visit the shrine today,” he said. “We are heading to the shrine in order to show our respect to the Imam Al-Kadhim and to our religion. We are expecting death any minute, but this will never deter us. God willing, all will be safe.”
Hassan Hadi, a 24-year-old college student, said he and seven friends took about four and a half hours to walk from Sadr City to the shrine in Kazamiyah.
“This is a very dear day for the Shiites. We have come here to commemorate the martyrdom of al-Kadhim who sacrificed his life for the sake of supreme principles of Shiites,” Hadi said. “We are not afraid of explosions, which we are used to. I am very happy to see this number of believers gathering here today. This shows the unity of the Iraqi people.”
The local Iraqi army command estimated the crowd at about 3 million people, but there was no way to verify that.
More than 1,800 Iraqi security forces were guarding the mosque complex, including 625 agents inside the shrine, officials said. Shiite security men also were known to be deployed throughout the area.
U.S. troops took a lower-key security role, staying away from the mosque at the pilgrimage’s heart to show respect, said the top U.S. ground commander in the area, Lt. Col. Steve Miska, the leader of Task Force Justice.
The Iraqi military spokesman for Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said security forces were on high alert, with helicopters on the lookout for mortar-launching teams.
“The security measures are tight and there is a high coordination with the Multi-National forces and local committees and other ministries,” al-Moussawi told the Shiite Al-Forat TV station. “We can expect anything from the terrorists on this day.”
Authorities also imposed an indefinite vehicle ban in the Shiite city of Hillah, south of Baghdad, which has been hit by some of the war’s deadliest bombings.