BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Gunmen opened fire on Shi’ite pilgrims in southern Baghdad on Sunday, killing seven, as thousands made their way to a revered shrine in the Iraqi capital, police said.
Iraqi forces have tightened security around the Kadhamiya district in northwestern Baghdad, where the shrine is located, ahead of a major Shi’ite religious pilgrimage this week, an army spokesman said.
Police said the pilgrims who were killed were on foot. They had apparently come from cities in southern Iraq, which is predominantly Shi’ite.
Shi’ite pilgrims have often been the target of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants who consider Shi’ism — the majority Muslim denomination in Iraq — heretical.
But recent Shi’ite religious events have passed relatively peacefully as violence in Iraq has dropped to four-year lows.
The annual pilgrimage to the Kadhamiya area is expected to attract more pilgrims than usual because security has improved, said Major-General Qassim Moussawi, spokesman for Iraqi forces in Baghdad.
“We expect at least a million (people), definitely multiples of last year,” Moussawi told a news conference before reports emerged of the shooting of the seven pilgrims.
Thousands of pilgrims have already entered Baghdad for the event, which peaks on Tuesday and marks the death of one of Shi’ite Islam’s 12 imams.
The Kadhamiya pilgrimage was marred in 2005 by one of the worst losses of life in a single incident since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, when rumors of a bomb attack triggered a stampede among pilgrims crossing a bridge leading to the shrine.
Up to 1,000 people were killed.
The bridge has been closed since but is expected to reopen soon after this year’s pilgrimage. Other bridges and roads leading to Kadhamiya have been closed for the event, and a vehicle curfew will be imposed, Moussawi said.
The Kadhamiya pilgrimage is one of several religious events in the Shi’ite calendar which have attracted millions since the fall of former president Saddam Hussein. The Sunni Arab leader curbed participation in such events.
Security forces deployed for the pilgrimage include a team of female guards to search women.
Women have carried out numerous suicide attacks in recent months, many in religiously mixed northeastern Diyala province, where al Qaeda militants are trying to stoke tensions.
Iraqi forces will begin an operation in early August to drive the Islamist group out of Diyala, said the commander of U.S. forces in northern Iraq, Major-General Mark Hertling.
The crackdown, which Iraqi officials announced earlier this month, follows other Iraqi-led offensives aimed at stamping government authority on areas once in the hands of Sunni Arab insurgents or Shi’ite militias.
Hertling told a news conference in Baghdad that U.S. forces would at the same time launch a new offensive to chase al Qaeda militants out of northern Iraq’s remote deserts.
“Our message is: we have secured the key cities of the north, we have continued to see al Qaeda pushed into ... areas of the desert. We will ... relentlessly pursue them,” he said.
He said Iraqi and U.S. operations in northern provinces had helped cut violence there by 75 percent to 650 attacks in June from 2,600 attacks in the same month last year.
Despite the better statistics, suicide bombings and shootings still haunt parts of northern Iraq, especially the city of Mosul.
In other violence, a bomb wounded a member of the Anbar provincial council and killed two of his bodyguards in the western city of Falluja on Sunday, police said.
Zeki al-Mohammedi escaped with minor wounds when the bomb exploded inside the garage of his home.
Additional reporting by Aseel Kami, writing by Mohammed Abbas and Tim Cocks, editing by Tim Pearce