Record crowd for violence-marred Baghdad pilgrimage

2015-05-14 18:13
(Karim Kadim, AP)

(Karim Kadim, AP)

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Baghdad - Millions of Shi'ite worshippers prayed on Thursday in Baghdad at the climax of a violence-marred pilgrimage that highlighted the persistent threat of jihadist attacks and sectarian tension.

The ritual saw the Iraqi capital come to a standstill for days, but the massive security set-up was not enough to prevent the Islamic State jihadist group from attacking pilgrims with car bombs over the past week.

Violence also broke out overnight when the faithful marched through the Sunni district of Adhamiyah on their way to the Imam Kadhim shrine on the other side of the Tigris river.

A police colonel told AFP that panic spread after 02:00, when a rumour began circulating that a suicide bomber was among the crowd.

"Some elements infiltrated in the midst of the pilgrims heading to the shrine of Imam Musa Kadhim attacked a Sunni Waqf [endowment] building," the officer said.

"They burned it as well as 17 other houses," he said.

Police sources said four people were burnt to death trapped inside their torched homes. Medical sources gave the same toll but said some of the victims had bullet wounds.

Hussein, a 22-year-old who was among the marching worshippers with five of his friends, was near the Sunni Waqf building when chaos kicked off.

"We heard somebody yelling 'suicide vest, watch out'. We all started running in different directions... I was so scared I felt anyone near me was a potential suicide bomber," he said.

Hussein said women and children were caught in the ensuing stampede, which led to a mob facing off with the guards of the Sunni Waqf before eventually setting it on fire.

Appeals for unity

The interior ministry said it had made some arrests and officials generally blamed the violence on a plot to whip up further sectarian resentment in Iraq.

"Some are angered by the fact that Iraqis are united in facing terrorism, that's why they tried to sow this discord," Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said as he visited the site of the flare-up early on Thursday.

"Whoever sabotages the security of this country must be hit with an iron fist," Sheikh Mohammed al-Sumaidai, the head of the Sunni Waqf, said at a news conference in the Kurdish capital of Arbil.

He went on call for a reconciliation conference to help defuse tensions between Iraq's ruling Shiite majority and the Sunni minority and make a joint push to root out the ISIS jihadist group, which has controlled swathes of territory for almost a year.

The pilgrimage, which has become a huge event in recent years, saw a record 10 million worshippers visit the Imam Musa Kadhim shrine in northwestern Baghdad, a spokesperson for the site said.

"The number of people this year exceeded 10 million over a period of five days to a week. This is the highest number, it is unprecedented," Amer al-Anbari told AFP.

Large numbers came from neighbouring Iran, but the spokesperson did not provide a breakdown.

The Arbaeen pilgrimage marking the death of another imam, Hussein, drew 17.5 million people to the southern city of Karbala in December, according to official figures.

The state had deployed around 75 000 men to protect Baghdad, the Arab world's second largest capital, with pilgrims marching on the streets and the thousands of tents set up for them to rest, eat and drink particularly vulnerable to attacks.

At least seven people were killed in a car bomb attack against worshippers on Saturday and another six were killed in two attacks on Tuesday.

ISIS fighters blitzed through Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland in June last year, in an offensive that threatened to redraw Iraq's borders and brought the war-weary nation to its knees.

The government and its allies launched a fightback last year and the jihadists have been steadily losing ground since but are still able to wreak havoc with car bombs and suicide attacks.

Read more on:    iraq

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