KARBALA, Iraq: Vast crowds of black-clad Shiite devotees thronged shrines in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala on Friday, defying a spate of vicious sectarian attacks aimed at marring an annual holiday.
The start of the two day festival of Arbaeen, which marks the 40th day after the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein in Karbala in the year 680, came on the eve of a major regional peace conference in Baghdad.
According to Karbala’s Governor Aqil Al-Khazali, three million pilgrims had arrived in the city, braving suicide bombers, snipers and mortar barrages from Sunni extremists trying to undermine a joint US-Iraqi security plan.
“You can barely see the paving of the streets, which are filled with pilgrims,” he declared, predicting that visitor numbers could hit six million.
“No security violation has taken place so far inside the holy city,” he added, noting that security services were on alert but warning that his office was short of buses to get the pilgrims out of the city afterwards.
On Thursday, US commander General David Petraeus had confirmed that millions of Shiites were on the move.
Arriving on foot bearing banners and Korans, many barefoot or carrying out ritual self-flagellation, the pilgrims had faced great danger. On Tuesday, 117 of them were killed by suicide bombers in the town on Hilla.
“With this crime they tried to divide Iraq and plant sedition and division,” declared Hussein Khadim, who led a procession of devotees from the town of Diwaniyah, almost 100 kilometres (60 miles) away.
“Let the world know that we redeem this country and the family of the Prophet. We would not hesitate to walk to the shrine even if blood was shed like rivers. We defy terrorists and their crimes on pilgrims.”
Clerics disagree on whether Friday or Saturday should be the official anniversary, and Karbala’s events were due to cover both days.
Hussein Abu Shabaa, who organised visiting pilgrims at the Imam Al-Abbass shrine, said that for the first time in years the processions included a 150-strong party from the Gulf state of Bahrain.
Nearby, student groups beat their chests in unison and some whipped themselves with metal chains in a traditional sign of devotion.
Among huge crowds flying traditional black, green and yellow Shiite banners, many wrapped themselves in the Iraqi national flag and called for unity.
Nevertheless, many slammed the government for failing to halt the violence.
“I came to beg God to unite Iraqis after politicians failed,” said Mahdi Saeed Jassim, a 50-year-old civil servant from Balbil province.
In 12 months since the demolition of a revered Shiite shrine north of Baghdad by Sunni bombers, Iraq’s bitter sectarian divide has exploded into a vicious war between rival political and religious factions.
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s government and Iraq’s US-led coalition army have launched a series of operations to try to quell the violence, most recently the Baghdad security plan, which was formally launched on February 14.
The United States is in the process of reinforcing its 140,000-strong force with more than 20,000 extra soldiers, and about 90,000 US and Iraqi police and troops are on the streets of Baghdad.
But, while Shiite militia leaders appear to have gone to ground, Sunni bombers have stepped up their attacks and the bloodshed continues.
In a bid to generate some political momentum to back up his military strategy, Maliki has called a conference of regional and world powers, whose envoys are to begin meeting on Saturday in the war-torn capital.
The government hopes to persuade Iraq’s neighbours -- including Iran and Syria -- to cut off support for the warring factions and the UN Security Council to do more to support the peace process.
US forces captured 16 suspected insurgents on Friday including an Al-Qaeda leader known as “The Butcher” because of his penchant for beheading captives.
This suspect was one of six insurgents captured in an early morning raid in the northern city of Mosul in which a seventh suspect was killed, according to a statement from US military headquarters.
The Butcher is “allegedly responsible for numerous kidnappings, beheadings, and suicide operations in the Ramadi and Mosul areas,” it said.
In the western city of Fallujah, troops captured two men suspected of helping foreign extremist fighters to slip into the country.
Eight more suspected members of an insurgent courier network were rounded up near the nearby town of Karmah, the statement said, including an “Al-Qaeda media emir” responsible for propaganda.