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Shi'ite Pilgrims Return From Peaceful Iraq Rite

KARBALA -- Hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims streamed home from Iraq's shrine city of Karbala on August 17 at the end of an annual holy rite that passed without the factional violence that marred it last year.

Several bomb attacks on pilgrims heading to the rite killed more than 30 people in recent days, but the ritual itself in Karbala was peaceful, authorities said. Last year Shi'ite militia and police clashed during the pilgrimage, leading to major gun battles in Karbala's streets.

At the conclusion of the Sha'abiniya rite overnight, believers crowded the banks of a river that flows into the Euphrates, floating lit candles on the water under a full moon.

Pilgrims then began to pack into buses to leave Karbala, some 80 kilometers south of Baghdad, which was under the tight watch this week of some 40,000 Iraqi police and soldiers backed by snipers, helicopters and bomb-sniffing dogs.

The pilgrimage marks one of the holiest days in Shi'ite Islam, the birth of Imam Muhammed al-Mehdi. Shi'ites believe the return of the "Hidden Imam", who disappeared in the ninth century, will herald peace on earth.

The throngs of Shi'a that make such pilgrimages each year underscore the clout wielded by Iraq's religious majority five years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2003.

Suicide Bomber

Participation in the pilgrimages has swelled since the fall of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who restricted Shi'ite shows of force and sought to keep control of their leaders. The events have frequently been targeted by Sunni Arab militants.

A suicide bomber killed 19 pilgrims near the town of Iskandariya on August 14 as they made their way to Karbala.

"This year, the pilgrimage was nice, except for the Iskandariya incident," said Yousif Mohammed Ali, a 41-year-old from the southern city of Basra, before heading home.

In other attacks on pilgrims, nine were killed on Friday at a bus station in Balad, north of Baghdad, and another six were killed in Baghdad on August 16.

But there was no repeat of last year's Shi'ite factional fighting which turned the area around the shrine into a battle zone for days and prompted influential Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to declare a cease-fire for his Al-Mehdi Army militia.

Iraqi security forces searched pilgrims entering the golden-domed Imam Hussein mosque, using 2,000 female police officers to search women.

Suicide attacks by women have become more common this year in Iraq, where women can conceal explosives in their voluminous black robes and often evade security searches.

Previous pilgrimages saw some of the highest-profile attacks of the war.

In 2004, bombs killed 171 people during a pilgrimage in twin attacks in Baghdad and Karbala. In 2005, more than 1,000 pilgrims died in Baghdad in a stampede triggered by rumors of a suicide bomb in the deadliest single incident of the conflict.