Millions mark Shiite rite amid relative calm

But spurts of violence leave at least 17 dead across Iraq


BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Millions of people gathered under heavy security in the holy city of Karbala yesterday, marking a major Shiite religious holiday without the serious violence that has marred the rite in recent years.

Five pilgrims were attacked in a drive-by shooting but survived unscathed, the Associated Press reported. Scores of pilgrims had been killed in previous days as they converged on the shrine to the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, in one of Shiite Islam's holiest cities.

But a suicide bomber, roadside explosives and a gunfight killed at least 17 people, including at least four policemen, in separate attacks elsewhere.

The bodies of 10 execution victims were found throughout the capital, some of them showing signs of torture, officials said.

The first bombing hit a police command post near a highway bridge in the mainly Shiite Baghdad neighborhood of Karrada. The blast killed two civilians and two officers, decapitating one. The explosion also injured one officer and two detainees, according to hospital officials.

In the middle-class Sunni neighborhood of Amariya on the west side of the city, gunmen opened fire on U.S. and Iraqi troops. One Iraqi policeman was killed and three others wounded in the ensuing shootout, according to Iraqi officials. And a bomb killed four and injured 10 others near a restaurant in southeastern Baghdad.

North of Baghdad in Waziriya, a plastic bag of explosives left in a cafe exploded, killing three patrons and injuring 22 others. Farther north, a suicide bomber rammed his car into a police checkpoint near Baqouba, killing one officer and injuring two others, police said.

The bodies of four men, showing signs of torture, were found in a sewage ditch in the Abu Disheer neighborhood. Authorities received six other corpses, found in other neighborhoods around the capital.

North of Baghdad near Kirkuk, a roadside bomb killed at least four people on the Riyadh Road. Attackers also threw a hand grenade at local police, but no injuries were reported.

After February's bombing of a Shiite shrine in Samarra, authorities feared a direct attack on Karbala during the pilgrimage, and tensions were high as millions of Shiites, some covering hundreds of miles, arrived at the Imam Hussein shrine. In the last couple of days, roadside bombs and gunmen have killed scores of traveling pilgrims. During the holiday in 2004, insurgents killed 171 people in coordinated bombings at Shiite shrines in Karbala and the capital.

This year, Iraqi soldiers and police had erected multiple checkpoints along the roads. Shiite militiamen loyal to firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, dressed in civilian clothes but wearing badges issued by the Sadr political offices, also guarded the worshipers.

U.S. forces provided air support while Iraqi troops were brought in from neighboring provinces, according to a statement from the U.S. military.

Baghdad International Airport was closed yesterday and was expected to remain closed today as a precaution against attacks, officials said.

Yesterday's holiday culminates 40 days of grieving and memorials for the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, who was killed in the seventh century on the plains near Karbala by the Caliph Yazid in a succession battle that split Muslims into the Sunni and Shiite sects.

During his dictatorship, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein outlawed the celebrations known as Arbaeen, dispatching his Republican Guard to prevent pilgrims from reaching Karbala. Devoted Shiites would sneak into the city by back roads and rural paths.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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