Last weekend, roughly one million Iraqis celebrated a holy day in Baghdad. And they were relatively unmolested.
Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s oppressed Shi’ite majority was forbidden to congregate for festivals. In fact, all non-Ba’athist public gatherings were treated as insurrections.
The democratic government reversed that policy, and millions of pilgrims turned out to celebrate the major holidays of the Shi’ite liturgical calendar – often with tragic results. Large crowds of unarmed Shi’ite pilgrims provide a tempting target for al Qaeda, and other bloodthirsty disciples of Wahabism.
One year ago – August 31, 2005 – 935 pilgrims to the Kadhimiyah neighborhood died when rumors of a suicide bomber caused a stampede on the A’imma bridge across the Tigris River. The pilgrims knew that Iraqi security could not protect them, and the mere rumor triggered a catastrophe.
This year, there was violence, too – but far fewer deaths. The area surrounding the al-Kadhimiyah Shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim was cordoned off for the celebration. Vehicles were forbidden, and Iraqi police protected access corridors for the pilgrims.
Nonetheless, some worshippers, seeking short cuts, left the protected routes, cutting through insurgent strongholds. Snipers, positioned on rooftops, killed roughly 20 unarmed pilgrims in the Adamiyah and Shaab neighborhoods.
Iraqi troops responded promptly. According to defense minister Abdul Qader Jassin, two gunmen were killed, and thirty insurgents were arrested, including 5 non-Iraqi Arabs.
“The ISF (Iraqi Security Forces – ed.) did a good job containing the violence and protecting the people,” said Maj. Gen. James Thurman, who commands the Multi-National Force Baghdad Division. “These acts against innocent civilians are deplorable, but Iraqi Security did an excellent job in preventing more needless loss of innocent civilian lives.”