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US Military Praises Iraqi Forces For Protecting Pilgrims

In Iraq Friday, a car bomb killed at least eight people and wounded dozens more in the northern Kurdish city of Kirkuk. But U.S. military officials are praising the performance of Iraqi security forces in Baghdad, after hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims marched to a shrine Thursday, without any major violence. VOA's Cindy Saine reports from Washington.

Baghdad was largely calm Friday, as many of the Shi'ite pilgrims headed home. The pilgrims had converged on Baghdad's Kazimiyah district for an annual observance at the tomb of a revered imam.

At a news briefing from Baghdad, U.S. Army Colonel John Castles, commander of the Second Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, said Iraqi forces took the lead in keeping the pilgrims safe.

"They have done an absolutely amazing job. We have been in solely a support role, in the background only," he said. "And this is something the Iraqis planned themselves, coordinated and then executed over a span of three or four days. And that's not easy to do when you're talking about three or four million people, walking down the streets into Baghdad, to this religious observance."

Last year, snipers killed at least 20 Shi'ites in Baghdad as they walked to the shrine. At the same observance in 2005, an estimated 1,000 pilgrims died in a stampede over a bridge that was triggered by rumors of a suicide bomber.

Colonel Castles also told reporters that the U.S. military believes the radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has traveled again to Iran, and that he has lost some influence over his Mahdi Army militia, which the U.S. holds responsible for a number of attacks against U.S. and coalition forces.

"I think he is now in Iran," he added. "So just based on his location, that implies some of his control is not direct. And we certainly haven't seen him in Sadr City operating."

Colonel Castles' soldiers are responsible for the Shi'ite slum of Sadr City, the cleric's stronghold.

A spokesman for Sadr's office in the southern city of Najaf was quick to respond, saying the anti-American cleric remains inside Iraq.

U.S. officials say Sadr first entered Iran in January this year and sought refuge there for four months as the U.S. sent additional troops to the Baghdad area. He was last seen in public in May in southern Iraq's holy city of Kufa.