Tight security for Shi’ite pilgrimage in Iraq

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shi’ite pilgrims descended on the holy city of Karbala on Monday amid tight security following a spate of bomb attacks against the country’s majority population.

Shi’ite Muslims are commemorating the birth of Imam Mehdi, their 12th and last imam who disappeared more than 11 centuries ago. They believe he will return to rule the world before judgement day.

This year’s commemoration follows an escalation in deadly attacks targeting Shi’ites who have been marking religious occasions openly since the ousting of former dictator Saddam Hussein, who banned such pilgrimages.

With al-Qaeda’s frontman in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, calling for ”all-out war” against Shi’ites, security was at a premium in the southern city.

”Security measures have been completed,” said Karbala’s governor Akeel al-Khazaali, adding that a division of the Iraqi army had been deployed around the city to prevent possible mortar or rocket attacks.

”A public-order battalion has also been deployed inside the city, in addition to 5 000 policemen,” he said.

Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born extremist who is Iraq’s most-wanted man, last week called for war against the Shi’ites in response to a United States-Iraqi offensive against Sunni Arab militants in the northern town of Tal Afar.

Since then, more than 200 Shi’ites have been killed, mostly in a wave of bomb attacks.

Up to 1 000 Shi’ite pilgrims died three weeks ago in a stampede on a Baghdad bridge during another religious festival as rumours swept through the crowd that a suicide bomber was about to blow himself up in their midst.

But pilgrims appeared to be undeterred by the threats as they trekked along highways leading to Karbala, situated 110km south of Baghdad.

”I challenge any enemy of the Shi’ites … Neither Zarqawi nor others can frighten us,” said 30-year-old labourer Hussein Jassem, who said he walked all the way from Najaf, about 80km south of Karbala.

Forty-year-old Subheiyah Saadoun said she came with her family from the southern city of Nasiriyah and would stay three nights in Karbala, despite risks.

”I want to die in this place, [be killed] by these villains if they decide to assault us,” she said.

Local police chief General Kerim Hashem al-Hasnawi said he expected the number of pilgrims to reach three million at the climax of the pilgrimage rituals on Monday evening.

After evening prayers, food was to be distributed to pilgrims who would then float lighted candles in the river.

Local authorities have warned pilgrims to avoid taking food and drink from unknown people to prevent any poisoning attack, a local doctor said.

Draft charter signed off

On Sunday, the Iraqi Parliament signed off the much-awaited draft Constitution, paving the way for the charter to be put to a national referendum on October 15.

The amendments to the text, adopted by Parliament in late August, were agreed to following talks to try to win the support of the disenchanted Sunni Arab minority, which had objected to several key provisions.

Meanwhile, Britain’s Independent newspaper quoted Iraqi Minister of Finance Ali Allawi as saying $1-billion has been plundered from the defence ministry coffers, seriously affecting the government’s ability to combat the insurgency.

”It is possibly one of the largest thefts in history,” he said.

Most of the money was ”siphoned abroad in cash and has disappeared” to finance the purchase of arms in Poland and Pakistan, according to the report. But rather than purchasing state-of-the-art weaponry, Iraq has procured ”museum-piece weapons”, the Independent charged.

On the ground, Iraqi journalist Fakher Haidar al-Tamimi, who worked for foreign media in the country, was shot dead in the southern city of Basra after being kidnapped overnight, his wife said.

The bodies of 20 men, apparently members of the Iraqi security forces, were found in the Tigris River near Balad, north of Baghdad, on Sunday evening, security services said.

The men had their hands tied and were executed by gunshots, according to the defence ministry.

One Iraqi was killed on Monday and three others, including a woman, wounded when a mortar round landed on a house in Baquba, north of Baghdad, police said.

In Baghdad, Estonian Prime Minister Andrus Ansip held talks with Vice-President Adel Abdel Mehdi after visiting soldiers from his country serving with US-led forces. — Sapa-AFP

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