- Title: IRAQ: Iraqi pilgrims return to their homes after pilgrimage to Kerbala
- Date: 17th August 2008
- Summary: MORE ON PILGRIMS IN MARKET
- Embargoed: 1st September 2008 13:00
- Location: Iraq
- Country: Iraq
- Topics: Religion
- Reuters ID: LVAB03T3P9OJ8YAH91PUPXWFM69W
- Story Text: A pilgrimage to Kerbala passes without the violence which marred it last year. Pilgrims begin their return home after completing the rites.
Hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims streamed home from Iraq's shrine city of Kerbala on Sunday (August 17) at the conclusion of an annual holy rite that passed without factional violence that marred it last year.
Several bomb attacks on pilgrims heading to the rite killed more than 30 people in the past several days, but the ritual itself in Kerbala was peaceful, authorities said. Last year Shi'ite militia members and police clashed during the pilgrimage, leading to major gun battles in Kerbala's streets.
At the conclusion of the Sha'abiniya rite overnight, believers crowded the banks of a river that flows into the Euphrates, setting lit candles afloat on the water under a full moon.
Pilgrims then began to pack into buses to leave Kerbala, some 80 km (50 miles) south of Baghdad, which was under the tight watch this week by some 40,000 Iraqi police and soldiers backed by snipers, helicopters and bomb-sniffing dogs.
The pilgrimage marks one of the holiest days in Shi'ite Islam, the birth of Imam Mohammed al-Mehdi. Shi'ites believe the return of the 'Hidden Imam,' who disappeared in the ninth century, will herald peace on earth.
The throngs of Shi'ites that make such pilgrimages each year underscore the clout wielded by Iraq's religious majority five years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
Participation in the pilgrimages has swelled since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who restricted Shi'ite shows of force and sought to keep control of their leaders. The events have frequently been targeted by Sunni Arab militants.
A suicide bomber killed 19 pilgrims near the town of Iskandariya on Thursday (August 14) as they made their way to Kerbala.
In other attacks on pilgrims, nine were killed on Friday (August 15) at a bus station in Balad, north of Baghdad, and another six were killed in Baghdad on Saturday (August 16).
But there was no repeat of last year's Shi'ite factional fighting which turned the area around the shrine into a battle zone for days and prompted influential Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr to declare a ceasefire for his Mehdi army militia.
Iraqi security forces deployed tens of thousands of troops and soldiers around Kerbala this week, searching pilgrims entering the golden-domed Imam Hussein mosque and using 2,000 female police officers to search women making the journey.
Suicide attacks by women have become more common this year in Iraq, where women can conceal explosives in their voluminous black robes and often evade security searches.
Previous pilgrimages saw some of the highest-profile attacks of the war. In 2004, bombs killed 171 people during a pilgrimage in twin attacks in Baghdad and Kerbala. In 2005, more than 1,000 pilgrims died in Baghdad in a stampede triggered by rumours of a suicide bomb in the deadliest single incident of the war.
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