KARBALA, Iraq - Agence France-Presse
More than three million Shiites marked the annual pilgrimage to Karbala amid tight security and attacks on the way to the holy city that killed dozens of people, officials said yesterday.
Shiite worshippers from across the Muslim world converged on Karbala over the past week to celebrate Shabaniyah, the birth anniversary of the eighth century Imam Mahdi, who vanished as a boy and whom Shiites believe will return one day as the messiah.
The celebrations culminated overnight on Saturday with more than three million Shiites having visited the central Iraqi city over the past week, Akhil Khazali, the governor of Karbala, told AFP.
"All the government offices and services were on alert during the ceremony," Khazali said.
Iraqi Shiites braved sustained militant attacks that claimed at least 36 lives since Thursday as they walked on foot from across the country to Karbala for the ceremony.
Karbala police chief Major General Raed Shakir Jawdat said the security plan in place for the celebration was a success.
"The security plan required thousands of security personnel, including more than 2,000 women police workers," he said.
More than 40,000 soldiers and police had been mobilized, including the 2,000 female security workers, to boost security in and around Karbala ahead of the festival.
Jawdat said the security measures would continue until all the pilgrims have left the city.
"The pilgrims were aware that these measures were for their safety and to protect them from terrorist attacks," Jawdat added.
Shiite pilgrim Ehsaan al-Asadi from the southern city of Nasiriyah praised the security operation.
"This was the most successful ceremony since the fall of the (Saddam Hussein) regime because we did not face any problems as we marched for seven days to reach Karbala," Asadi told AFP. "The security measures were in our interest as several pilgrims were attacked while on their way to Karbala from Baghdad."
Mohammed Abdallah, a Shiite from the northern town of Tal Afar, said he was not scared to attend the annual ritual. "I had no fear. This year the pilgrimage was successful," he chimed in.
Last year Karbala was the site of deadly firefights in which at least 52 people were killed during the pilgrimage. The firefights were blamed on the militia of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, after which he ordered a freeze on the activities of his fighters.