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IRAQ: Hoping for peace on a long march south

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Each year about this time, Iraq’s roads fill with clusters of Shiite Muslims walking to the holy city of Karbala, often from more than 100 miles away. The pilgrimage is part of commemorations marking the anniversary of the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad.

Last year, more than 200 Shiites died in sectarian violence as they converged on Karbala, but this year, with violence down, devoted Shiites are making the trek again and hoping it will be far more peaceful.

[Feb. 24, 2008 update: Looks like hopes for a peaceful pilgrimmage have already been marred by an outbreak of violence on Sunday that left dozens dead. — B.D. in Baghdad]

‘We are peaceful people and have no guns,’ said 23-year-old Hussein Abd al-Khadim Hussein on Friday. He was among the pilgrims starting the long walk from Shaab, his Baghdad neighborhood. Hussein missed the pilgrimage in 2007 because his parents feared for his safety.

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Gazwan Jabar, 25, made it to Karbala last year and remembers passing through neighborhoods where Shiites had been killed by attackers using guns, car bombs, and explosive vests. ‘But now we feel safe, because the Awakening elements are securing the road,’ Jabar said, referring to civilian security groups who now protect areas not well covered by Iraqi police or soldiers.

Jabar said he was grateful to the fiery Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr for calling a halt to his militia’s activities last August. The cease-fire followed bloodshed in Karbala between rival Shiite groups. On Friday, Sadr renewed the truce for another six months.

‘God bless Muqtada,’ Jabar said.

Although things are better, Hussein says there still are major problems to be solved. One of them is the rebuilding of the revered gold-domed Shite mosque in Samarra, he said. The mosque’s bombing two years ago is blamed for a lengthy escalation in Iraq’s Sunni-Shiite violence. The mosque was targeted again last year.

Hussein also voiced another demand of many Shiites as he embarked on the pilgrimage.'We demand the occupation to pull out of Iraq,’ he said, referring to U.S. troops.

— Saad Khalaf in Baghdad.


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