BAGHDAD (Reuters) -- Iraqi forces handled security for day one of a major religious pilgrimage in their first big test of working on their own since last month's withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraqi towns and cities.
Iraqi security officials said they expected record numbers of Shi'ite Muslims, up to 6 million, to visit the Imam Moussa al-Kadhim shrine in northern Baghdad, site of some of the deadliest attacks on Iraqi civilians since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion in 2003.
A sea of people mostly dressed in black thronged roads leading to the golden domed shrine throughout the day to commemorate the death of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, a medieval Shi'ite holy man, or imam. The event culminates on July 19.
"This is the first 100 percent Iraqi security plan. The forces are Iraqi, even the helicopters," said Baghdad security spokesman Major General Qassim al-Moussawi.
With national polls looming in January, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki staking his reputation on security and ushering the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the stakes are high.
The Kadhimiya site has been surrounded by three rings of security personnel to search each pilgrim, and helicopters patrol overhead. Cameras on air balloons monitored the site, the surveillance provided by the U.S. military at Iraq's request.
"I haven't joined the pilgrimage for a while because I was afraid. This is the first time," said pilgrim Ali Hussein.
Such religious gatherings are frequently targeted by Sunni militants such Al-Qaeda, which considers Shi'ites heretics. In April, two suicide bombers killed 60 people outside the shrine.
During a pilgrimage in 2005, rumors of a bombing on the Bridge of the Imams, leading to the shrine, triggered a stampede that killed 1,000, clogging the river below with bodies.
The incident was deadliest since 2003. The bridge, which connects Sunni and Shi'ite areas of Baghdad, reopened last year.
"This pilgrimage is unprecedented. All the roads are open.... The number expected is higher than previous years," said Baghdad security commander Major General in Staff Abud Qanbar.
Roadside bombs wounded pilgrims on July 16 and 17.
U.S. troops withdrew from Iraqi cities last month as part of a security pact that paves the way for full withdrawal by 2012.
Violence has fallen sharply in Iraq in the last year, but the there was a spike in attacks in June's withdrawal.
"Nothing will prevent us visiting Kadhimiya. We used to come in the days of slaughter, and now you can see the security there's no excuse not to come," said pilgrim Adnan Mohammed.