- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 19, 2006

BAGHDAD — Thousands of pilgrims arrived on foot yesterday at a Shi’ite shrine in Baghdad to start a major religious commemoration as private vehicles were banned from the streets to prevent car bombings. At least 19 persons, including an American soldier, were killed in attacks nationwide.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged Iraqis to cooperate with security forces during the ceremonies marking the death in 799 of Imam Moussa ibn Jaafar al-Kadhim, one of 12 Shi’ite saints.

The imam is buried in a golden-domed shrine in north Baghdad’s Kazimiyah district.

Tens of thousands more Shi’ites were expected to visit the shrine today, when the ceremonies peak. Fearing an attack among the pilgrims, the government banned all private vehicles on the streets from Friday night until tomorrow morning. Soldiers, police and Shi’ite volunteers threw a security cordon around the shrine, frisking pilgrims as they arrived.

Mindful of Sunni-Shi’ite tensions, Mr. al-Maliki, a Shi’ite, warned against turning the ceremonies into a political demonstration, calling on clerics to urge people to unite and “shun whatever could lead to sectarian fights.”

“We warn all those who use podiums [in mosques] to incite sectarian violence that they will be prosecuted as terrorists,” he said.

Shi’ites from across the country began arriving on foot at the shrine Friday night. Late Friday, gunmen opened fire on a group of pilgrims walking through the mostly Sunni Adil neighborhood in western Baghdad, killing seven of them.

Three mortar shells landed in Kazimiyah district late yesterday — two in a river and one in a school compound — but caused no casualties.

Last year, the government said about 1,000 people died during the Imam al-Kadhim commemoration when rumors of suicide bombers triggered a mass stampede on a bridge across the Tigris River. It was the biggest single day death toll since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

“Last year I was on the bridge and I fell into the water but that gave me the power to come back. I challenge the terrorists now that I have come to visit the imam,” said Rahim al-Rubaie, 29.

An American soldier was killed in combat yesterday in Anbar province, the stronghold of the Sunni Arab insurgency west of Baghdad, the U.S. military announced.

Nine persons were killed yesterday in Baqouba, a major Sunni-Shi’ite flash point, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad. The victims included two professors of the Diyala University who were shot dead while returning home.

Also yesterday, four Iraqi soldiers were killed when the convoy they were traveling in was struck by a roadside bomb in Diwaniyah, 80 miles from Baghdad, police said. Five others were killed in scattered violence across the country.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI appealed for the release of a priest kidnapped at gunpoint in Baghdad, in a telegram sent to the patriarch of the Iraqi capital, the Vatican said yesterday.

In the telegram, sent by the Vatican’s Secretary of State Angelo Sodano, the pontiff expressed “profound sadness” at the abduction of the Rev. Hanna Saad Sirop on Tuesday in Baghdad as he left Mass celebrating the Assumption holiday.

Christians make up 3 percent of Iraq’s 26 million people.

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