Tens of thousands of Shiite Muslims pilgrims thronged a shrine in Baghdad on Wednesday for a ritual mourning ceremony amid a surge in violence that has sparked fears of a new all-out sectarian war.
Security forces effectively shut down much of Baghdad, closing off major roads and limiting what cars could be on the streets, to protect against attacks after nationwide violence rose last month to its highest level since 2008.
Pilgrims from across the capital and the country descended on the shrine, dedicated to a revered Shiite figure, for commemoration ceremonies that were to culminate on Wednesday in the northern neighbourhood of Kadhimiyah.
Mourners were to carry to the shrine a symbolic coffin, marking the 799 AD death of Imam Musa Kadhim, the seventh of 12 revered imams, who is said to have been poisoned.
The ceremonies come amid a surge in attacks that, coupled with numerous unresolved political disputes and months-long anti-government protests in Iraq's north and west. That has prompted fears the country could return to the sort of brutal conflict that plagued it in 2006 and 2007.
Shiite pilgrims are often targeted by Sunni militants who regard them as apostates.
"The terrorists will not scare us," said Khaled Naama, a 35-year-old day labourer from the southern city of Samawa. "We will never stop, even if you continue your explosions and your murders, because this is the path to paradise."
Another mourner, 41-year-old Hmoud Jassim, said the number of pilgrims represented "a challenge to terrorism."
"I hope that the entire Islamic world, and all the terrorists, see that all these people are coming as a challenge to terrorists, to visit Imam Kadhim's shrine and to mark this painful event," said Jassim, an official in the state-owned South Oil Co.
Interior ministry spokesman Brigadier General Saad Maan said no violent incidents had been recorded, while AFP journalists reported tight security on the ground.
Officials and analysts point to a raft of political disputes as the cause of the latest violence. In a bid to ease tensions, political leaders held a symbolic meeting over the weekend, but no tangible agreements were announced.
In particular, analysts say government policies that have disenfranchised Sunnis have given militant groups both fuel and room to manoeuvre among the disillusioned minority.