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Shiite pilgrims gather in Karbala for major ritual amid heavy security
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21:30, February 16, 2009

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Tens of millions of Shiite pilgrims are gathering on the holy city of Karbala in Iraq Monday to observe a major ritual of Arbaeen while thousands of Iraqi security forces deployed in the city to protect the pilgrims.

Some nine million Shiite pilgrims, many were traveling on foot, have converged on Karbala, some 110 km southwest of Baghdad, from Iraqi cities throughout the past ten days, said the governor of Karbala Aqil al-Khazaali.

An estimated four millions out of the nine are expected to stay in the city for the pilgrimage day of Arbaeen, he added.

Authorities in the city said that up to 150,000 Shiite pilgrims arrived in the city from Iran and Gulf countries as well as other Muslim countries.

Karbala has beefed up the security for the important event. More than 30,000 of Iraqi police and soldiers, snipers and some 5,000 undercover agents, along with 1,500 female security guards to search women, have deployed in the city, according to Ali Jasim Muhammed, a police chief of Karbala.

He said that the holy city has been divided into eight security zones and surrounded by three belts of security members.

During the past ten days, despite tight security measures, at least 50 worshippers were killed and more than 120 others wounded in attacks and suicide bombings as they were traveling to Karbala.

One of the most deadliest attack took place in Mussayab area, some 40 km south of Baghdad, when a female suicide bomber blew up her explosive vest among a gathering of Shiite women worshippers, killing at least 35 of them and wounding more than 65 others. Most of the victims were women and children.

Iraqi state-run television and other private channels aired live footage showing the streets of the city were clearly overwhelmed with sea of black-clad pilgrims filling the wide avenues and narrow back-streets.

Processions of elderly, young men and children, marched through thousands of other pilgrims, waving green, black and red flags, at the wide avenue in front of Imam Hussein shrine.

Some pilgrims beat their chests and heads in honor of Imam Hussein who was killed in the battle of Karbala in the seventh century and since then became a key moment in the Sunni-Shiite schism.

"I can't say that security situation is good 100 percent, but it is certainly better than before," Wisam Amin, 38, a civil servant told Xinhua at a checkpoint in southern Baghdad.

Salam Abdul Hussein, a college student, said "we are not bothered by the tight security measures because we understand that it is necessary."

Ali Yasir, 25, a pilgrim said "we trust security and I feel safe, and I want to tell those terrorists that your attacks won't deter us from doing our religious duty."

A police officer, who declined to be named said "the unprecedented numbers of worshippers is making the big challenge today that how can we secure transportation for those great numbers of people to get back their homes."

The Iraqi state-run television said that the Iraqi government called on private cars owners to participate in bringing large numbers of pilgrims to their homes.

Source: Xinhua

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