Jordan takes first step among Arabs to post ambassador
BAGHDAD (Agencies) â€” Security forces were on high alert Saturday as hundreds of thousands of Shiite devotees marched into Baghdad to mark the death of a revered imam, a year after a stampede killed nearly 1,000 pilgrims.
Prime Minister Nuri Maliki warned preachers against using mosques to incite sectarian violence as pilgrims from across Iraq converged in the violent capital which has seen widespread fighting between Sunnis and Shiites.
Men, women and children carrying flags in the Shiites’ traditional yellow and green and copies of the Koran walked into the capital â€” many of them barefoot â€” defying fears of attack and vowing not to be intimidated by Sunni insurgents.
Seven pilgrims were shot dead late Friday as they walked through a Sunni suburb, a reminder of Baghdad’s sectarian tension at a time when police expect more than a million devotees to gather for the annual ritual.
Last year, at least 965 pilgrims were crushed or drowned in the Tigris River when a stampede broke out after rumours that a suicide bomber was in the midst of the crowd heading towards the shrine of Imam Musa Kadhim.
Musa Kadhim was the seventh imam of Shiite Islam. He was poisoned in prison in Baghdad 12 centuries ago and his tomb has become a place of pilgrimage.
Last year’s tragedy did not seem to have scared off members of Iraq’s Shiite majority community as they arrived in Baghdad to attend Sunday’s march.
“I do not care if I die. I would come here at the risk of having my head chopped off. It would be a great honour to die on the day Musa Kadhim died,” said Kadhim Handel, 50, from Baghdad’s most populous Shiite district of Sadr City.
Another survivor of last year’s disaster, Ismail Qassem from Hussainiyah on the outskirts of the capital, said: “I expect more people this year as the tragedy has strengthened our determination.” The large numbers of pilgrims gathering in Baghdad â€” 24 hours before the actual ritual â€” left even the heads of security forces surprised.
“We did not expect them to come in such large numbers this morning. I think this year we may see several million pilgrims, which means it will require increased security measures,” said Brigadier Jabbar Memjhed of the Iraqi army.
Iraqi authorities have created a detailed security plan and imposed a vehicle curfew across much of central Baghdad from nightfall Friday for two days until after the rally has dispersed.
National police chief Major General Adnan Thabit told AFP that pedestrians would be allowed to move within their own districts but pilgrims in the city will be limited to two tightly controlled routes across the river.
Only two of the bridges linking mainly-Shiite east Baghdad to the mainly-Sunni west of the city will be open, Thabit said.
Maliki warned that those who used Muslim mosques to provoke sectarian violence would be prosecuted under anti-terrorism laws.
“We call all Iraqis to observe the instructions given by the security forces for conducting the anniversary peacefully and in turn defeat the goals of terrorists,” he said.
Pilgrims arriving from outside Baghdad said they had been protected and fed along the route by members of the Mehdi Army, loyal to Shiite radical leader Moqtada Sadr.
“The Mehdi Army played a big role in providing security and also gave food to us,” said Ahmed Fuad, a shopkeeper from the central town of Kut, who walked the 175 kilometres to Baghdad in four days.
One year on from last year’s deadly stampede, Baghdad is even more tense than before. Daily insurgent bombings target crowds of Shiite civilians, while death squads hunt members of the Sunni minority.
Health officials put the average daily death toll at 50.
Iraqi and US forces have deployed more than 30,000 troops under an ambitious security plan designed to return order to the capital.
The US military also announced that security forces had arrested leaders of three Shiite death squads suspected to have killed more than 40 Sunni Arabs in the capital’s Jihad neighbourhood on July 9.
Elsewhere in Iraq, at least 19 people were killed, including nine in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad.
Two university lecturers were among those killed in Baqouba, the capital of Diyala, while four Iraqi soldiers died in a roadside bomb attack in the city of Diwaniyah, south of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, Jordan has become the first Arab state to send a fully accredited ambassador to Iraq, a major display of political support for the government in the face of past kidnapping-slayings of Muslim diplomats.
Iraq and the United States has long urged Iraq’s Arab neighbours to upgrade diplomatic relations to the ambassadorial level, rather than maintain missions headed by lesser-ranking diplomats, as an affirmation of support.
But the Arabs had been stalling due to violence and concern over the Shiite-led government’s dealings with the Sunni minority, which forms the foundation of Iraq’s insurgency, and the government’s ties to Shiite-dominated Iran.
Ambassador Ahmad Lawzi presented his credentials Thursday to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a presidential statement said Friday. The German ambassador also presented his credentials.
Lawzi came to Baghdad with Prime Minister Marouf Bakhit, who arrived here last week on a short visit.
Egypt agreed last year to send an ambassador, Ihab Sherif, but he was kidnapped in July 2005 and assassinated before presenting his credentials. Two Algerian diplomats were kidnapped in the same month and killed.
In October 2005, two Moroccan embassy workers were abducted and killed. Two months later, Sudan closed its embassy in return for the release of six embassy employees who had been kidnapped.
Al Qaeda in Iraq claimed responsibility for all the kidnappings and killings, and warned Arab and Muslim countries against establishing relations with Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government.
In March, however, Arab countries agreed to open diplomatic missions in Iraq after scathing criticism by Iraq’s foreign minister that they are not doing enough to help the war-torn nation.