Shiite pilgrimage poses major challenge for Iraqi military

July 16, 2009 

BAGHDAD — A human tide of Shiite Muslim pilgrims visiting the Kadhimiyah shrine is expected to fill the streets of Baghdad on Saturday in the first major security challenge for Iraqi military forces since U.S. combat troops withdrew from Iraq's cities June 30.

Authorities have imposed a limited curfew in Baghdad, and thousands of additional Iraqi soldiers and police officers are on the streets for the annual commemoration of a revered Shiite holy man who died in the eighth century.

A brigade from the Iraqi Federal Police — previously known as the Iraqi National Police — set up checkpoints at which men, women and children were searched Thursday, and Iraqi army helicopters flew low over the crowds.

Two American helicopters also hovered overhead; in the past, Iraqis had asked that only U.S. helicopters protect their missions.

"We are ready, and we are not afraid. We took all the proper preparations," a high-ranking federal police officer said. "For the first time in this pilgrimage, we can ask for Iraqi air support that can be here in five minutes."

The officer spoke on the condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to journalists.

The shrine honors Imam Musa Bin Jafaar al Kadhim, the seventh imam in the Shiite version of Islam. During the pilgrimage, the crowds carry a coffin to show their devotion to the imam.

"We are here today because Imam Kadhim said, 'God bless those who resuscitate our cause,' " said Chasib Kadhim, 45, as he was giving water to pilgrims.

American military forces, operating in a support role since June 30, can deploy only at the request of Iraqi forces. Thousands of pilgrims also will come from Iran, and U.S. military officials fear that some of them may turn to violence, espionage or other tactics to destabilize Iraq.

The pilgrimage often has been a focus for insurgents. Four years ago on the same anniversary, about 1,000 pilgrims died in a stampede on a bridge, set off by a rumor that a suicide bomber stalked the pilgrims. The bridge has only just reopened. On April 24 this year, during another pilgrimage to the shrine, two suicide bombers infiltrated despite the checkpoints and killed 60 pilgrims, including 25 Iranians.

"The significance of this pilgrimage is to reject oppression, reject tyranny and to show the oppression that occurred against the family of the Prophet," Sheik Fadhil al Daraji said as he walked among the pilgrims "It also helps the society to unite. As you can see, Sunnis and Shiites alike help the pilgrims."

Despite the possible insurgent threat, the mass pilgrimage represents a commercial boon for merchants.

"Demand doubled three times or more within the last two days" said Mahdi Jabar, a wholesale distributor. "Most of the demand is for cakes, juice and water bottles, the things that are being handed to the pilgrims to help them walk."

A pilgrim can eat and drink for free all the way to the shrine, and some have come hundreds of miles. Residents often pitch tents to provide rest for the pilgrims, and cook for them on the sides of the road. The Ministry of Health has moved ambulances to areas where pilgrims might need them.

The Red Crescent, the Islamic world's equivalent to the Red Cross, has deployed hundreds of volunteers at 18 stations on the road to Kadhimiyah to serve the pilgrims and offer resting places and first aid.

Salam Abed Jassim, his wife and children sat on the median eating rice and beans. "I am not afraid, because if I die I will be dying on the way to the imam," he said about possible violence, "and I brought these two children to teach them as my father taught me."

Added the high-ranking police officer, "This pilgrimage is a challenge between the government and the Iraqi troops from one side and terrorism on the other — and we will win."

Millions of pilgrims and 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq hope that he's right.

(Dulaimy is a McClatchy special correspondent. Mike Tharp of the Merced Sun-Star contributed to this article from Baghdad.)

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