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Iraq Tightens Security For Shi'ite Pilgrimage Amid Bombings

Iraqi police secure a section of the route in Baghdad where pilgrims travel on their way to Karbala.
KARBALA -- A roadside bomb struck a minibus packed with pilgrims bound for the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala even as Iraqi authorities deployed over 40,000 police and soldiers to avert new violence in the annual rite.

Police said one pilgrim was killed and nine were wounded in eastern Baghdad in the attack, which came as thousands make their way, some walking for days, to Karbala to mark the birth of Imam al-Mahdi, a revered figure in Shi'ite Islam.

On August 14, 19 people were killed and 75 wounded when a female suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest among pilgrims travelling toward the city.

Iraqi security forces, backed by helicopters and hundreds of snipers perched on rooftops, say they will search pilgrims and use bomb-sniffing dogs to ferret out explosives as part of an effort to avoid the bloodshed that continues to mar such religious events even as overall violence in Iraq drops sharply.

"We have set up scores of watch towers, and have cameras placed in open areas, crossroads and major entrances," said Karbala police chief Major General Ra'd Shakir.

Female Officers Deployed

A string of bomb attacks in Karbala during a pilgrimage in 2004 killed 171 people and wounded scores in one of the worst attacks heralding the outbreak of Iraq's sectarian conflict.

Shakir said around 2,000 female police officers would be searching women making the annual Sha'abaniyah pilgrimage.

Suicide bombings by women have become far more common this year in Iraq, where U.S. forces blame Sunni Al-Qaeda militants for deploying female bombers to evade security searches. Three female suicide bombers struck the last big Shi'ite pilgrimage in Baghdad last month, killing nearly 30 worshippers.

In Karbala, police in fatigues and red berets checked ID cards and patted down faithful entering the golden-domed Imam Husayn Mosque, strung with brightly colored neon lights.

Outside the mosque, throngs of pilgrims, some of them women barely visible under their black abayas, sat on blankets.

Authorities have banned people from carrying weapons and chanting sectarian slogans. On the roads to Karbala, police watch over pilgrims carrying belongings on their backs in the scorching summer heat.

Bracing For The Worst

Despite the precautions, Karbala is bracing for the worst. Local health director Alaa Hammudi said that 40 medic units were standing by, and that extra hospital beds were made ready.

Near the mosque, makeshift clinics were set up in tents and trailers. Some pilgrims donated blood.

Shi'a believe that al-Mahdi, the 12th imam, disappeared in the ninth century but never died. They believe his return will signal the advent of peace and justice on Earth.

The pilgrimage is one of several annual events that have become shows of force for Iraq's Shi'ite majority since the fall of Sunni Arab leader Saddam Hussein, who restricted Shi'ite religious practice. Sunni Arab militants often strike them.

Last year's pilgrimage was marred by gunbattles in Karbala between Shi'ite factions, which led to a cease-fire by anti-American cleric Muqtada al-Sadr that U.S. forces say is one of the factors contributing to Iraq's fall in violence.

A spokesman for the U.S. military said that U.S. forces would support Iraqi troops if needed.

15th U.S. Death So Far In August

The United States has been seeking to highlight its secondary role in such security operations as U.S. and Iraqi officials negotiate an agreement to outline the U.S. presence in Iraq after a UN mandate expires at the end of the year.

Iraq's Shi'ite-led government is hoping that U.S. forces will halt patrols of Iraqi cities and towns by the middle of 2009, and withdraw combat troops by 2010 or 2011.

So far, President George W. Bush has resisted a firm timetable, but has spoken of a "time horizon" and "aspirational goals" governing a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq.

The U.S. military announced the death of a Marine killed by small-arms fire in western Iraq, the 15th U.S. service member to die in Iraq this month. Just 13 died in all of July, the least deadly month since the war began.