July 8, 2010 / 9:25 AM / 9 years ago

Iraq Shi'ite pilgrims trudge on as bombs continue

* Attacks continue as pilgrims march

* Tight security fails to protect them

* Pilgrims say they are resolute



By Muhanad Mohammed

BAGHDAD, July 8 (Reuters) - Thousands of Iraqi Shi’ite pilgrims trudged resolutely through blood-spattered streets on Thursday, determined to pay homage to a Shi’ite Imam despite suicide and roadside bombs that killed dozens.

Even with 200,000 troops and police deployed to ensure security, a series of blasts on Thursday morning in eastern Baghdad killed three pilgrims as they walked home from the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine, and wounded 54, police and Interior Ministry sources said.

The attacks followed a suicide bombing and roadside bombs on Wednesday evening which killed 36 and wounded hundreds, many of them as they passed through Sunni areas of the Iraqi capital to the shrine in a northern district for a religious rite.

"These explosions are expected," said Farqad Faiq, 21, a college student.

"We know we will be targeted but that will not prevent us from affirming our faith and insisting on visiting the shrines of our imams. These explosions will increase our determination to stick to our principles."

Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ites, Iraq’s majority sect, have been streaming through Baghdad for days to commemorate the death of the Shi’ite holy man, Imam Moussa al-Kadhim. The rite peaks on Thursday.

Protecting the event is a key test for the Iraqi security forces during a political vacuum left by an election in March that produced no outright winner and as yet no new government, and ahead of the end of U.S. combat operations in August.

The suicide attack on Wednesday evening by a female bomber took place just short of a bridge where 1,000 Shi’ite pilgrims died in 2005 during the same event after rumours of a bomb sparked a stampede.

Overall violence has fallen sharply in Iraq as the sectarian bloodshed receded over the past two years, but a stubborn yet weakened Sunni Islamist insurgency continues to stage regular attacks. Suicide bombings are a hallmark of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda, which regards Shi’ite Muslims as apostates.

The inconclusive election in March has heightened sectarian tensions because of expectations the main Shi’ite-led political blocs will join forces to deprive the actual vote leader, a Sunni-backed cross-sectarian coalition, of what it sees as its right to try to form a government.



HEAVY SECURITY

In addition to putting forces out in the streets, the Iraqi authorities imposed a city-wide ban on motorcycles and bicycles, deployed helicopters and snipers, and set up barricades to keep vehicles away from the golden-domed shrine.

Last year, the pilgrimage provided the first big test for Iraqi police and soldiers after U.S. troops withdrew from urban centres at the end of June. The U.S. military will end combat operations this Aug. 31 ahead of a full withdrawal next year.

Many of the Shi’ite pilgrims railed at the government for failing to protect them.

"We hold the government and the security forces accountable for the security breaches," said Qahtan Ali, 64, a retiree. "With these breaches the terrorists have proved that they are stronger than the government and the security forces."

Yet they also vowed to be resolute.

"When we went on the pilgrimage, we knew we would be targeted and we have gotten used to this because al-Qaeda’s ideology is to kill Shi’ites," said Adel al-Habubi, 57.

"I will come next year whatever the challenges are." (Writing by Michael Christie; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)



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