Tight security in Baghdad for Shi'ite pilgrimage
Thursday, 31 July 2008

REUTERS, BAGHDAD- Tens of thousands of Iraqi Shi'ites converged on a revered shrine in Baghdad for the climax of a major pilgrimage on Tuesday, a day after three female suicide bombers killed 35 people among crowds of pilgrims.

Iraqi authorities imposed a vehicle curfew in the city.

Officials had predicted 1 million people would attend the commemoration of the death of one of Shi'ite Islam's 12 imams.

It was unclear if Monday's attacks, which bore the hallmarks of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, would deter many pilgrims from flocking to the Kadhamiya shrine in northern Baghdad. Shi'ite pilgrims normally make their way to such events in Iraq on foot.

"The situation is fine today. Thanks be to God, security is very good," Issam Jassim said as he walked to the shrine.

Tents were set up along the way to hand out food and water.

The government and U.S. officials condemned the blasts in Baghdad, as well as a suicide bombing in the northern city of Kirkuk on Monday that killed 23 people. One Iraqi security official said it might have also been carried out by a woman.

More than 250 people were wounded in the four attacks, which marked one of the bloodiest days in Iraq this year. Police revised up earlier death tolls from the bombings.

Violence has fallen to four-year lows, but the bombings underscore the challenge for Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, especially as U.S. troops draw down while his forces seek to take on greater responsibility for safeguarding the country.

Iraqi troops and police have set up checkpoints and closed roads for the pilgrimage in Baghdad. The vehicle curfew took effect at dawn on Tuesday.

The annual pilgrimage to the Kadhamiya shrine is one of the most important events in the Shi'ite religious calendar.

Security forces have put female guards around Kadhamiya to search women, but all Monday's blasts happened in central Baghdad, an area many pilgrims pass through to reach the shrine.

Iraqi men are also reluctant to search women, prompting al Qaeda to increasingly use females who easily hide explosives under their flowing black robes.

U.S. commanders caution that despite better security, suicide bombers wearing vests packed with explosives will still manage to slip into crowded places. Women have carried out more than 20 suicide attacks in Iraq this year.

TENSIONS IN KIRKUK

In multi-ethnic Kirkuk, shops opened after a curfew imposed in the wake of the bombing was lifted, residents said.

Monday's attack occurred at a demonstration against a controversial provincial elections law, which has been widely criticized by minority Kurds. In the aftermath of the bombing, clashes broke out between protesters and guards protecting a political office of the ethnic Turkmen community in the city.

Last week, President Jalal Talabani rejected the election law as unconstitutional after Kurdish lawmakers boycotted the parliament session that passed it.

The law would have postponed polls in Kirkuk and allocated equal seats to ethnic or sectarian groups, which Kurds rejected. Local elections are expected later this year or early 2009.

The fate of Kirkuk, a mixed city of Arabs, Kurds and Turkmen is one of the most divisive issues in Iraq.

Kurds, who run the largely autonomous northern Kurdistan region, see Kirkuk as their ancient capital.

Arabs encouraged to move there under Saddam Hussein want the city to stay under central government control. Arabs and Turkmen believe Kurds have filled Kirkuk with Kurds in an attempt to tip the demographic balance in their favor in any vote.

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