Baghdad vehicle ban imposed for holiday

August 19, 2006|By LOUISE ROUG | LOUISE ROUG,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD -- The Iraqi government imposed a two-day vehicle ban in the capital yesterday, an effort to avoid bloodshed during a major Shiite festival this weekend.

During the festival last year, pilgrims crossing a bridge over the Tigris River panicked after rumors spread that a suicide bomber was among them. About 1,000 people - many of them women and children - drowned or were trampled to death in what remains the bloodiest day since the American-led invasion.

This year, authorities estimate that more than 1 million people will attend the festival, which marks the death in 799 of Imam Musa Kadhim, one of 12 major Shiite saints. As pilgrims arrive in the city, they have found the capital locked down, with thousands of troops patrolling the streets. The vehicle ban, which includes most of Baghdad, will be in effect until 6 a.m. Monday.

As pilgrims walked toward a blue-domed shrine in eastern Baghdad where Kadhim is buried, violence continued in and outside the capital yesterday.

Authorities said gunmen killed seven pilgrims walking along a highway in western Baghdad. Just north of Baghdad near Baqubah, a Sunni couple were killed by gunmen. In Dora, one of the most lawless areas in the city, a suicide car bomber detonated explosives near a house of worship, injuring three.

Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced that the Iraqi army had captured three men suspected of ambushing Iraqis last month at a checkpoint in the Jihad neighborhood.

During the past 12 months, U.S. troops handed over portions of the capital to Iraqi forces. In most neighborhoods, security deteriorated rapidly. In an effort to regain control of the capital, the U.S. military recently announced a new security plan in which U.S. troops would once again become a more active presence in the city. The stepped-up security effort - dubbed Operation Forward Together - involves 12,000 American and Iraqi troops.

In an office affiliated with the Shiite cleric and militia leader Muqtada al-Sadr in western Baghdad yesterday, soldiers from the 172nd Stryker Brigade found mortars and three surface-to-air 57mm rockets, one rigged as a roadside bomb, according to the military.

U.S. officers suspect al-Sadr's Mahdi Army is behind many kidnappings and killings of Sunnis as well as attacks against Americans. Some Mahdi Army members have infiltrated the Iraqi Army and police, making it easier for them to raid homes and move during curfew.

But Shiite leaders have protested U.S. efforts to curb the al-Sadr militia. "Instead of sending [Iraqi and American] troops to hot spots in Iraq, the government sends them ... to peaceful places like Sadr City and Shula, where innocent and virtuous people are arrested and houses are raided," said Abdul Muhammadawi during open-air prayers outside an al-Sadr political office in Sadr City yesterday.

Louise Roug writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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