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Thousands defy violence, mark Muslim rite in Iraq

KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims marched and beat their heads and chests in ritualistic mourning in a major rite in Iraq’s holy Shi’ite city of Kerbala on Tuesday, after attacks that killed dozens in recent days.

Shi'ite people take part in a ceremony to mark the religious ritual of Arbain at Imam al-Abbas shrine in Kerbala, 80 km (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad January 25, 2011. REUTERS/Mushtaq Muhammed

The Arbain event, which draws Shi’ites from across Iraq, neighboring Iran and other Muslim communities, has been a frequent target of al Qaeda militants, but pilgrims in Kerbala sounded defiant on the climactic day of the commemoration.

It was a stern security test for a government formed in late December after months of political bickering following an inconclusive March election, as U.S. troops prepare to withdraw from Iraq by year’s end.

“I’m happy to finish the rituals and I’m not afraid at all because when I left Baghdad I was expecting death at any moment, but that would never deter me,” said Aqeel Fadhil, 38, a taxi driver who wore a black dishdasha robe and carried a black flag bearing a portrait of Imam Hussein.

Arbain marks the end of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad and a central figure of Shi’ite Islam who was killed in a 7th century battle. His followers believe he was buried in Kerbala.

Shi’ite religious rites were banned under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, who was ousted in 2003 by a U.S.-led invasion that triggered years of sectarian warfare.

A series of bombings in recent days against pilgrims, police recruits and police across Iraq killed more than 100 people from Kerbala to mainly Sunni areas north of Baghdad. [nLDE70J1IQ]

On Monday two bomb blasts ripped through crowds of pilgrims in Kerbala, killing at least a dozen people and wounding scores. On Tuesday, there were no major attacks by mid-afternoon.

“We know risks are looming, we know enemies are everywhere, but we are more determined to do rituals every year,” said 50-year-old Burhan Raad, a government worker who traveled to Kerbala from Diyala province with three relatives.

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The Shi’ite-led government deployed 120,000 police and soldiers during Arbain to protect the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of pilgrims.

“Cowardly crimes those terrorists and their allies committed against pilgrims of Imam Hussein will not pass unpunished,” Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a statement.

“The armed forces and security apparatus should continue the pressure to uproot the vicious tree of terrorism.”

Mohammed al-Moussawi, head of Kerbala provincial council, said this year’s crowd was the largest since Saddam’s overthrow.

His deputy, Nusaif al-Khattab, criticized the failure to stop car bombings around Kerbala. “We are not satisfied with the security plan. It was below expectations ... It’s impossible to deal with such huge numbers of pilgrims perfectly,” he said.

Swarms of pilgrims, many dressed head-to-toe in black, surged through Kerbala’s narrow streets. Many slapped their heads and chests in a ritualistic flailing to express mourning.

Others coated their heads in wet clay.

“We cover ourselves with clay to express deep sorrow and grieve for the killing of our Shi’ite imams in Kerbala. It’s a tradition we learned from our grandfathers,” said Qais Khayoon, 30, a policeman who said he had walked from Basra to Kerbala.

Abdul-Khaliq al-Hathal, 57, traveled from Bahrain with his wife and mother to mourn Hussein’s death.

“It’s my first visit ... and I feel stunned by the vision of a sea of pilgrims,” Hathal said. “I can’t say I’m not afraid, but how long should we be deprived of practicing our rituals?”

Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Michael Christie and Tim Pearce