July 7, 2010 / 2:47 PM / 9 years ago

Iraq Shi'ite pilgrims defy bombs, security

* Shi’ite pilgrimage under tight security

* Authorities ban motorcycles, bikes to protect pilgrims

By Muhanad Mohammed

BAGHDAD, July 7 (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims streamed through the streets of Baghdad on Wednesday to commemorate the death of a medieval Shi’ite holy man, defying bombs and mortars that killed six pilgrims and wounded dozens.

Security officials assigned 200,000 police officers and soldiers to protect the pilgrims as they headed to the shrine of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim in a northern district of the Iraqi capital. They imposed a city-wide ban on motorcycles and bicycles to help prevent attacks.

Iraqi military helicopters circled over the golden-domed shrine and snipers perched on nearby rooftops, using binoculars to scan the crowds below for signs of trouble after several attacks the day before killed at least six people.

Last year, the pilgrimage provided the first big test for Iraqi security forces after U.S. troops withdrew from towns and cities at the end of June that year. During the same event in 2005, 1,000 people were killed in a stampede triggered by rumours of a bombing on a bridge leading to the shrine.

"We expect the terrorist groups to launch terrorist attacks against pilgrims during the coming hours, but our contingency plans will foil their vicious acts," said Major General Ahmed al-Saedi, commander of the Iraqi 6th Army Division in charge of securing the Kadhimiya district, where the shrine is located.

Major General Qassim al-Moussawi, Baghdad’s security spokesman, said anyone who violated the ban on motorcycles and bicycles, which are sometimes used by suicide bombers, would be detained.

Security forces set up barricades to keep cars and trucks away from the shrine.

They used police and military vehicles to transport pilgrims to the shrine.

Shi’ite pilgrims appeared undeterred by both the security measures and by at least seven attacks on Tuesday. In one incident, two mortar rounds struck several hundred yards from the shrine, killing three pilgrims and wounding eight.

Another mortar attack killed one in the Shula district of northwestern Baghdad as pilgrims walked to the shrine, while roadside bombs killed two and wounded 20.

"I’m a Shi’ite and I have to stay faithful to my sect and imams," said Layla Abbas, 63, who sat in a wheelchair and was pushed by her daughter toward the shrine. "I’m disabled yes, but my loyalty to Shi’ite imams is not."

Sectarian tensions have been running high in Iraq since an inconclusive March 7 parliamentary election that Iraqis hoped would bring stable government to their nation more than seven years after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Four months later, politicians have yet to negotiate a new government.

Kadhim Chillab, 54, had politics on his mind as he walked to the shrine despite the fierce heat of the Iraqi summer, covering his head with a handkerchief.

"I’m walking to Imam Kadhim to show my loyalty as a Shi’ite and in this occasion I also ask God to enlighten politician’s minds to end our suffering and form the government," he said. (Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed, writing by Jim Loney)

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