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Security Tight As Shiites Gather at Shrine

Associated Press | March 20, 2006
By QASSID JABAR

Millions of Shiite pilgrims, some of them flogging themselves with chains, surrounded a shrine in the holy city of Karbala on Monday to commemorate the 40th and final day of symbolic mourning for the Prophet Muhammad's grandson.

Tight security appeared to be holding sectarian violence at bay in the city, though five pilgrims making their way to Karbala were attacked in a drive-by shooting in Iskandariyah, 30 miles south of Baghdad. All survived, police said. In Karbala, the day passed without major reported violence.

On Sunday, insurgents fired a mortar round into a parking lot near the shrine 50 miles south of Baghdad, but no one was hurt.

"We are not deterred by the attacks by terrorists and extremists, who want to prevent us from doing our rituals," said Mohamed al-Khazali, a 58-year-old Shiite pilgrim from Najaf.

Some 4 million pilgrims had arrived at the city, said Karbala Governor Akeel al-Khuzai, who expected more to pour in through Tuesday. Many performed rituals of self-flagellation with chains and hit themselves with machetes to display grief over Imam Hussein's death.

Some Sunni Muslims were among those gathered.

"Imam Hussein is a symbol for all Muslims, not just for Shiites," said Amer al-Nuami, 55.

The commemoration has been marked by deadly insurgent attacks in the past. In 2004, coordinated blasts involving suicide bombers, mortars and planted explosives hit Shiite shrines in Karbala and in Baghdad, killing at least 181 people.

An increased number of Iraqi soldiers and police officers patrolled the streets and manned several checkpoints Monday. Baghdad International Airport also was ordered closed through Tuesday "to avoid any violence during the (religious) commemoration," Transportation Ministry spokesman Ahmed Abdul-Wahab said.

The airport has been closed in the past for security reasons, including during elections.

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