Huge throngs of Shiite worshippers — some flogging themselves with iron chains or cutting their foreheads with swords — are expected to walk toward the mosque, the shrine of Imam al-Kadhim, located in the northern Kazimiyah neighborhood.
The ritualized self-flagellation is a grieving rite that was banned under Saddam Hussein. Since his ouster in the 2003 U.S. invasion, Shiite political parties have encouraged huge turnouts at such religious festivals to display their power in Iraq’s new order.
By Wednesday, more than 1,500 pilgrims had passed through several checkpoints into the area, said an Iraqi police lieutenant who identified himself only as Fadil, because of security concerns.
Beating her chest, Zeinab Muhammad Ali had pushed a baby stroller during the 90-minute walk to the site, with six more young children trailing behind her. The 42-year-old said she was undeterred by the threat of violence.
“He’s my imam — he died for us Shiites — so we must visit and mourn him,” she said.
Mosque heavily guarded
More than 1,800 Iraqi security forces were guarding the mosque complex, including 625 agents inside the shrine, officials said. Shiite militiamen also are known to be deployed throughout the area.
“The vulnerable points are where pilgrims are assembling to come in — checkpoints, bus depots — places like that. Then, obviously, the crowds around the shrine. You’ll have al-Qaida try to launch rockets and/or mortars to inflict casualties,” said Miska, 39, from Greenport, N.Y.
This year, water trucks have been stationed at intersections throughout the Kazimiyah neighborhood to quench thirst in the 115-degree heat. Tents strung with colored lights and flowers provided shade for travelers, many of whom came from around Iraq.
Men piled firewood for bonfires, where big cauldrons will hold soup and rice for passers-by. One young boy used a squirt gun to spray cool water over the crowd.