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Shi'ite Pilgrimage in Iraq Winds Down Amid Fits of Violence

Iraqi officials are saying that more than 50 people have been killed and dozens of others wounded during the annual Shi'ite pilgrimage to honor one of 12 revered Imams. The violence came despite strict security measures by Iraqi security forces.

A three-day pilgrimage to a Shi'ite shrine in Baghdad is winding down Thursday amid bursts of religious fervor, despite sporadic acts of violence and bloodshed.

A bloody suicide bombing Wednesday night, which killed more than two dozen Shi'ite pilgrims, came as an embarrassment to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. The government had played up the massive deployment of security forces in anticipation of the event.

Al-Qaida and other insurgent groups have regularly targeted Shi'ite pilgrims during the annual commemoration of the death of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim and on other Shi'ite holidays. A stampede on a Baghdad bridge provoked by fears of a suicide bombing in 2005 reportedly killed over 1,000 pilgrims.

Tens of thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims, including hundreds of visitors from neighboring Iran and other Gulf countries, gathered for the celebration to honor the death of Imam Moussa al-Kadhim, the 7th of 12 revered Shi'ite Imams. Organizers were billing the event as a "Million Man March."

Iraqi government TV played down the acts of violence, insisting that the large gathering was "taking place under secure conditions." Ali, a Shi'ite pilgrim, insisted that violence would not prevent him or others from gathering for the annual commemoration.

He says that he and others will not be deterred by the bombings, and that the security situation is now stable. He praised Iraq's security forces, insisting that they are protecting and serving the pilgrims as usual.

A Shi'ite pilgrim from the Gulf state of Bahrain noted that he had visited Iraq for the same pilgrimage in 2005 and that violence had subsided dramatically since then. He also asserted that Iraqi hotels were full of Shi'ite pilgrims from outside the country and that things looked "normal."

James Denselow, a Middle East analyst at King's College London, argues that it's difficult to prevent bloodshed during large pilgrimages, since mortar explosions or suicide bombings can kill many people in densely packed crowds. "Once you have people in large crowds in public areas, the impact of mortar attacks, suicide bombs or even as in the case of the bridge attack, just the fear of attacks often drives people to trample each other to death," he said.

Denselow insists that the level of violence in Iraq has been reduced by the presence of blast walls and the sectarian cleansing which has taken place since 2003. But, he says, there are still many hot spots in the country and the potential for a renewed insurgency remains:

"The fact that General (Ray) Odierno spoke last week about the potential of having to deploy U.N. peace keepers in the north (of Iraq) is a reminder of how many conflicts remain outstanding in the country, and the four month delay in the coalition building (to form a new government) has given experts the idea that there is a potential for a second wind from the insurgency," Denselow stated.

President Barack Obama stated recently that most U.S. forces will have withdrawn from Iraq on schedule by the end of August. A force of 50,000 troops is expected to remain until the end of 2011 to help train Iraqi security forces.