- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 19, 2006

From combined dispatches

KARBALA, Iraq — Hundreds of thousands of Shi’ite pilgrims flocked to the holy Iraqi city of Karbala yesterday amid tight security to foil any sectarian attack.

Flying flags and flailing themselves, a sea of people filled roads to Karbala ahead of Arbain, mourning the dead in a seventh-century battle that confirmed a schism in Islam, which has left Iraq dangerously divided between Sunnis and Shi’ites today.

The proceedings, which culminate this evening, were calm aside from a mortar round that hurt no one but was a reminder of bombings that have caused carnage at Shi’ite rituals.

Authorities deployed at least 8,000 Iraqi police officers and soldiers in the city. Local officials say they expect up to 2 million people to attend this evening’s ceremonies in the city, 70 miles southwest of Baghdad.

“I walked here from Basra to declare loyalty to Imam Hussein, but I’m afraid because I expect a blast to kill me at any minute,” said Samer Kathum as he took a rest from his 250-mile pilgrimage in a tent outside Karbala.

At least four pilgrims walking from Baghdad were killed in shootings and a roadside bombing in the past two days. In March 2004, attacks on pilgrims in Karbala and Baghdad killed more than 170 people.

Residents said police were patrolling the streets with members of the Shi’ite Mahdi Army militia of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Plainclothes policemen, their weapons concealed, were mingling with pilgrims.

A sand bank has been built around the city to control access, residents said. Police also set up checkpoints up to 12 miles from the city and told pilgrims arriving by car to leave their vehicles and proceed on foot.

In Baghdad, Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders continued struggling to form a national unity government more than three months after elections, raising fears that a political vacuum will play into the hands of insurgents and fuel violence.

In a sign of progress, politicians emerged from the fourth in a series of U.S.-brokered all-party meetings to say they had established an advisory, 19-member Security Council.

“It was a successful meeting, and we have agreed on forming a National Security Council whose powers will not contradict the constitution,” said Adnan al-Dulaimi, a Sunni Arab political leader.

Mr. al-Dulaimi said nine council seats would go to the Shi’ite majority, while Kurds and Sunni Arabs would control four seats each and the secular bloc would control two. President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, will lead the group.

The exact powers of the council were not explained. But it appeared to have been formed to ensure that politicians from minority blocs would at least be consulted on important government and security decisions.

Twelve bodies with gunshot wounds were found around the capital, police said, apparently the latest victims of sectarian violence.

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