BAGHDAD (Reuters) â€” Gunmen, some on rooftops, ambushed Shiite pilgrims walking in their tens of thousands to a sacred shrine for a major festival in Baghdad, killing up to 20 and wounding more than 300, Iraqi officials said.
“Most of the attacks are taking place when pilgrims are crossing the neighbouring areas into Kadhimiya,” a health ministry spokesman said, referring to the northern suburb where the shrine is the focal point of the two-day religious ceremony.
Twenty pilgrims were killed and 300 wounded, spokesman Qasim Yahya Allawi said.
Heavy security was meant to lower the ever-present danger of sectarian strife at a festival with a bloody history. Last year, rumours of a suicide bomber sparked a stampede that killed 1,000 people, mostly women and children.
Clashes were reported in the west and the north of the city and television pictures showed guards on the roof of a government ministry exchanging fire with insurgents.
Iraqi police and the interior ministry gave lower death tolls. The ministry said eight pilgrims had been killed and 90 wounded, while a police source said four had died and 23 were hurt. Two policemen were also killed in firefights with gunmen.
After dusk, police reported gunbattles in downtown Baghdad.
Police had set up protected corridors to the shrine and urged people to stick to these designated routes. But with huge numbers cramming the roads, many tried to find shortcuts and came under fire instead.
A resident in the mainly Sunni district Waziriya said Shiites fought for several hours with gunmen who had opened fire from rooftops. Fighters searching his house told him they had shot dead two.
Defence Minister General Abdul Qader Jassim said 30 suspects had been arrested, including at least five non-Iraqi Arabs, and that 14 police had been wounded in the violence.
Scores die violently every day in Iraq in sectarian and insurgent bloodshed, mostly in Baghdad, where thousands of additional US troops have been sent in recent weeks to help restore stability.
At the festival, worshippers flagellated themselves with chains and tens of thousands crammed the narrow streets around the shrine of Imam Musa Kadhim in Kadhimiya.
Festivals of that size were unheard of under the oppressive rule of Saddam Hussein, who goes on trial on Monday charged with genocide against ethnic Kurds, who accuse him of killing more than 100,000 people in the so-called Anfal campaign in 1988.
Saddam’s six co-defendents include his cousin Ali Hassan Majid, widely known as “Chemical Ali” for his alleged use of poison gas to put down insurrection in the Kurdish heartland in northern Iraq.
Saddam is likely to plead not guilty and say the deaths in Kurdistan were a legitimate state response to attacks by Kurdish fighters allied with Iran.
Prime Minister Nuri Maliki’s Shiite-led government put thousands of additional troops and police on the streets and temporarily banned vehicles from Baghdad at the weekend to protect pilgrims at the festival, which ends on Monday morning.
Musicians banged drums and cymbals, others waved flags and pulled floats depicting the imam, while attendants sprayed water on people to help them keep cool in the searing heat.
“I was here last year, but the measures taken this time are much better,” said Kadhim Hussein, an unemployed 35-year-old.
“Thank God there are people giving us food and drink.” Islamic historians say Imam Musa Kadhim, was imprisoned and poisoned in Baghdad in 799 AD by Harun Rashid, the leader of the Muslim caliphate at the time, who feared him as a political rival for power.