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IRAQ: After the bombing, Shiite pilgrims walk on

July 29, 2008 |  3:36 pm


The sea of pilgrims moved toward the majestic Imam Kadhim mosque complex with its twin gilded domes and towering minarets. They came to mourn Imam Kadhim, the Shiite saint who died in 799 when, his followers say, the Islamic world's caliph, a Sunni, poisoned his food in prison.

The pilgrims —  women in black robes, and men in traditional dishdashas or simple T-shirts and sweatpants —  marched long distances from all over Iraq to mourn his death. They covered their heads with T-shirts to protect themselves from the sun.

Since the U.S.-led invasion, Shiite holidays have been marred by attacks by Sunni extremists and other tragedies. On Monday, three female suicide bombers struck pilgrims, killing 32 people and wounding 102 others. On the anniversary of Imam Kadhim's death in 2005, a stampede left nearly 1,000 dead when pilgrims panicked at the rumor of a suicide bomber on a bridge.

On Tuesday, men and boys walked through the crowd, with tanks of water on their backs, to spray the perspiring crowd. Tents stood on the side of the road to shelter people from the heat.  Inside, water, juice and tea were served.

Some enterprising teenagers pushed exhausted women on carts since cars and motorcycles were banned.  Packed trains ferried pilgrims from the city's main station to the outskirts of Kadhimiya. People dangled from the sides of the individual cars and sat on the roofs.

Green and red  banners of Islam adorned the neighborhood of Kadhimiya, and the sound of lamentations from speakers blurred with the buzz of hovering Iraqi helicopters.  People spotted the gunner in a helicopter and he flashed a grin.

Near Haifa Street, once synonymous with Sunni militants, pilgrims rested in shelters, not alarmed about possible attacks.   

"When I heard about the explosions, I continued on my way and did not hesitate," said Alaa Hadi, 26, who marched to Kadhimiya.

Homemaker Umm Bashar, 45, came from south of Baghdad by bus and was dropped off in the center of the city, towing her 3-year-old daughter, in order to honor a pledge. 

"I asked the imam a gift to have a child and God gave me my daughter. So I brought her here to fulfill my vow and see the imam," she said.  Close to the shrine, men raised their hands as if performing a ritual, but soldiers were actually checking them for explosives.

The pilgrims stood around a fake cell, mean to resemble Imam Kadhim's prison, and threw money at it, asking the beloved saint to grant their wishes.

By a symbolic black coffin for the imam, a parade of men practiced self-flagellation with chains, bloodying their backs. Some women knelt down to the coffin asking for a blessing. Thinking about Monday's violence, one pilgrim was defiant.  "The suicide attacks were meaningless; they just wanted to sabotage the election," said Ahmad Abed Muhaimen, a 29-year-old teacher. "Tell everyone that we are still alive and working."

— Usama Redha in Baghdad

Photo by Saad Khalaf / Los Angeles Times