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Seven killed as Shiite pilgrims flock to Baghdad

Gunmen shot dead seven pilgrims heading to a holy Shiite shrine in Baghdad despite tight security for a major religious ceremony expected to attract up to one million worshippers.

world Updated: Jul 27, 2008 20:26 IST

Gunmen shot dead seven pilgrims heading to a holy Shiite shrine in Baghdad on Sunday despite tight security for a major religious ceremony expected to attract up to one million worshippers.

The seven men were gunned down in the town of Madin, just south of the Iraqi capital, police said, and a doctor at a Baghdad hospital confirmed receiving their bodies.

Up to a million pilgrims are expected to flock to Baghdad for a major Shiite festival on Tuesday that commemorates revered imam Mussa Kadhim who died 12 centuries ago.

Security is especially tight at the Kadhimiyah mosque in northwestern Baghdad, where Kadhim is said to be buried, and has in the past been the site of attacks.

In August 2005, at least 965 people died in a stampede at a Baghdad bridge seen as a symbol of Kadhim's death, triggered by rumours that a suicide bomber was in their midst and following a mortar attack on the mosque that killed seven people.

Wary of more insurgent attacks this year, the authorities in Baghdad have stepped up security measures for the festival although pilgrims were flocking to the capital amid an overall drop in violence.

Wifaq Aziz, an Iraqi refugee living in Iran, said he was pleased to be home after 20 years living abroad to escape the regime of toppled dictator Saddam Hussein and the violence after the 2003 US-led invasion.

"Before I could not come to Baghdad, but now I can come easily," Aziz, 32, told AFP as he held his two-year-old daughter in his arms just outside the golden-domed Khadhimiyah mosque.

"I'm so happy to be here, it just fills my soul with joy to be able to make this pilgrimage," Aziz said.

Shiites will congregate at the Kadhimiyah mosque to mourn Khadim's death, believed to have been poisoned in Baghdad in the late eighth century by agents of the then-ruling Sunni caliph, Harun al-Rashid.

The gathering is a time for prayer and celebration with relatives and friends, but with the tens of thousands of people expected, it also poses a threat to security gains made in Baghdad over the past six months.

Although systematic violence -- suicide bombings and sectarian killings -- have dropped sharply in the capital since a peak in 2006, Iraqi police were taking no chances despite the semblance of normalcy on Baghdad streets.

An extra 5,000 police and soldiers have been deployed in Kadhimiyah, setting up multiple checkpoints.

"There is more than a full brigade deployed in the vicinity, entrances and exits of the city, and in the surrounding areas of Kadhimiyah city, for fear of attacks," a defence ministry source told AFP.

As pilgrims sought protection from Baghdad's scorching heat on shady sidewalks, chatting, eating and sipping tea, one long-time store owner hailed the security improvements but also recalled the potential dangers.

Yussef Musawy, 38, a gold merchant recalled with horror the scenes of death and carnage on the day of the stampede on August 31, 2005, saying: "All the stores on the street next to us were destroyed."

Major General Kassam Atta, spokesman for city security, told reporters that his force had information regarding the possibility of attacks targeting pilgrims during this year's festival.

"We ask people to help in all ways with our security forces," Atta said, adding that up to one million people were expected.

Soldiers have cordoned off the northern Baghdad district, not allowing traffic in, while pedestrians -- especially women -- were being subjected to strict security searches, an AFP report witnessed.

"I don't mind being searched," said one woman who had just stepped through a checkpoint. "It is for the good of us all."

Levels of violence nationwide have hit a four-year low, and with weapons banned in much of Kadhimiyah and cell phones not allowed inside the mosque, pilgrims and residents said they felt much safer than before.

"Security is much, much better than last year," said Diya Mohammed al-Anssary, 68, who travelled by bus with one of his four wives from Diwaniyah, about 180 kilometres (110 miles) south of Baghdad.

"I'm not afraid," said Anssary, who like so many Iraqis, said he spent time in jail when Saddam was in power.