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In election season, Iraq steps up Ashura security

KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - Iraq deployed tens of thousands of soldiers to protect Shi’ite pilgrims on Saturday, part of intensified security measures the government hopes will prevent bloodshed that has marred past religious rites.

Tightened security reflects not only the ongoing threat from Sunni Islamist militants who have targeted Shi’ite ceremonies since 2003, but also the potential political damage major attacks could do ahead of national polls in March.

Over a million pilgrims are expected to converge on Sunday in the city of Kerbala, south of Baghdad, for the culmination of Ashura, when Shi’ite Muslims commemorate the slaying of the prophet Mohammad’s grandson Hussein in Kerbala in 680 AD.

Kerbala Governor Amal al-Hir said 20,000 members of Iraq’s security forces had formed eight cordons around the city. A thousand snipers were perched on buildings and troops stood watch with bomb-sniffing dogs and devices to detect explosives.

Hundreds of women will search female pilgrims’ voluminous black robes, which have been used to conceal bombs in the past.

Security was intensified too in Baghdad, where many pilgrims began the 80 km (50 mile) walk to Kerbala. Others headed toward an important Shi’ite shrine in Baghdad’s Kadhimiya district.

Officials shut down vehicle traffic in Kadhimiya to prevent explosives planted in cars or motorcycles.

Despite the added security, there have been casualties in recent days in small-scale attacks targeting pilgrims as they walk in groups or shelter in roadside tents.

A grenade was thrown at pilgrims in northeast Baghdad late on Saturday, wounding five. Earlier in the day in east Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed two pilgrims and wounded eight.

Shi'ite pilgrims perform self-flagellation using iron chains during a procession commemorating the Shi'ite religious festival of Ashura in Kerbala, about 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad, December 26, 2009. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed

For Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government, preventing large-scale violence is particularly important before the March 7 general election.

A series of spectacular attacks targeting state buildings in Baghdad has undermined Maliki’s position as the man who improved security in Iraq and tackled the worst of the violence unleashed by the U.S. invasion in 2003.

The election is expected to be a competitive one, as Maliki and rivals among his fellow Shi’ites try to build cross-sectarian alliances that will appeal to Iraqis fed up with years of violence, disorder and government corruption.

Thousands of worshippers waved giant pictures of Hussein as they crowded outside the Khilani mosque in central Baghdad to hear Ammar al-Hakim, who heads the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the biggest party representing Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Hakim, whose party is a member of a coalition that will challenge Maliki, linked Hussein’s death to the corruption and nepotism plaguing modern Iraq.

“Today we find history repeating itself ... The followers of Hussein understand the scale of this conspiracy and work hard to confront it. They will not be tempted by money and promises that will vanish after the elections,” he told the crowd.

“The coming parliamentary polls represent a pivotal, important moment in representing the Hussein epic anew.”

In Kerbala, Hir, a member of Maliki’s Dawa party, vowed that this year’s Ashura rite would not be politicized.

“We will not allow this ceremony to be used as propaganda for the elections,” he said.

The elections present a major challenge for Iraq’s security forces, which have stepped into the lead as U.S. troops prepare to halt combat operations in August 2010.

Iraqi officials acknowledge that Iraqi forces have been vulnerable to infiltration by militants but point to the strides they have made since 2003. This week, they stressed that Iraq, not U.S. forces, was driving the security plans for Ashura.

Additional reporting by Muhanad Mohammed and Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Missy Ryan; Editing by Louise Ireland