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A peace sign: Iraq's Sunnis joining Shiite pilgrims

After three years of violence, pilgrims return to Karbala's shrine.

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Although the attacks appeared intended to reignite sectarian violence, the Shiite pilgrims were unwilling to blame their Sunni countrymen for the suicide bombers.

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"It's people from outside Iraq," says Suad Mohammad Katham, who walked for two days from Baghdad with her 13-year-old niece. "They must have drugged her and then put the vest on her."

Security forces guard route

On Saturday, after the latest bombing, random body searches by volunteers were stepped up on the roads out of Baghdad. Iraqi security forces stood watch every 200 yards along the 40-mile route from the capital to Karbala, where tens of thousands of Iraqi soldiers and police were deployed. Near Mahmudiyah, US backup included air support and a quick reaction force. Lt. Col. Jim Bradford, a US Army battalion commander, said an estimated 4 million pilgrims had passed through Muhmudiyah with no major incidents.

The wave of pilgrims, many of them poor and jobless, carried a sea of prayers of a people recovering from war and a country struggling to put itself together. Many were making the pilgrimage to ask Imam Hussein to intercede with God to cure loved ones.

Each pilgrim's path is unique

Suad Mohammad Katham, her plastic sandals digging into her feet, was walking to Karbala to give thanks for her mother's improved health. Ms. Katham had made a previous pilgrimage to pray for her.

Nathal Qassim had a flag of Hussein furling around her traditional black cloak. Her husband was shot in an armed robbery six months ago on Baghdad's Palestine Street. "I'm praying to find the murderer and for all of those who have loved ones missing," she says.

In Baghdad's Karrada neighborhood, where the hold of religious extremists has loosened, huge flags depicting Hussein flew next to shop windows crammed with fuzzy red hearts and plastic roses for Valentine's Day.

With the almost unimaginable violence of the last two years waning, Iraqis seem to be finding a way to live together again – a willingness to forgive is seen as a key test to the country's future.

Torture didn't break spirit

At one of the hospitality tents in Karrada, Thamer Tariq Barhoum, an unemployed house painter, says he was released from Camp Bucca, a US prison in the south of Iraq, six months ago when he was found innocent after spending 40 months in US and Iraqi detention.

Mr. Barhoum, a father of six, says he was tortured by Iraqi security forces after being accused of attacking US soldiers. He bears the scars of being hit with a rifle butt and what he says was burning plastic dripped onto his wrists.

Despite all this, Barhoum says he bears no hatred against the Iraqi officer who he says administered the torture. "I don't have anything against him," he says. "After he beat me, he brought me food and apologized – he was ordered by his superiors to do it." He says he was better treated by his American captors after he was handed over.

A tribal court – more trusted than Iraq's civil courts – ordered the Iraqi policeman who falsely accused him to pay more than $4,000 in compensation. He is still waiting for compensation from US authorities. "They gave me $20 for taxi fare," he says.

Awadh al-Taee contributed in Baghdad.