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What do Shiite pilgrims want? A new Iraq government.

The need for a new Iraq government was high on the minds of Shiite pilgrims who defied suffocating heat and suicide attacks as they headed toward a Baghdad shrine Wednesday. They are observing the death of an 8th-century imam.

By Staff Writer / July 7, 2010

Shiite pilgrims head to the Imam Moussa Kadhim shrine, seen in the background, for the annual commemoration of the saint's death, in the Shiite district of Kazimiyah, in Baghdad, Iraq, on July 7.

Karim Kadim/AP

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Baghdad

Shiite pilgrims streaming for days toward a Baghdad shrine on Wednesday found themselves talking as much about politics ­– and the failure of Iraq's leaders to yet form a government, four months after a national election ­– as their devotions.

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Columns of hundreds of thousands of devotees defied suffocating heat – and attacks that had left at least 40 dead and scores wounded over two days – in order to mark the 8th-century death of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, the seventh of Shiite Islam’s 12 most holy saints – and the one, appropriately, revered for his patience during years in prison.

A suicide bomber struck after dark on Wednesday, killing 28 pilgrims and wounding 63, according to the Iraqi police. Several other blasts killed five pilgrims, adding to at least six marchers who died in attacks on Tuesday.

Sunburned from four days of walking, retiree Mohammad Sawaf Jassim stopped to rest at a roadside tent in downtown Baghdad, before Wednesday’s after-dark violence.

A white-robed pilgrim, he had marched 75 miles from the southeast, his faith resonating in his observation that “If we can’t use our legs [to walk], we will use our hands, because [the imams] are our support in this life, and the next life.”

But conversation along the pilgrims’ path has centered on how bickering between Iraq’s politicians since the March 7 election has damaged expectations, and raised fears of greater insecurity.

“It’s the daily talk of the people: politicians and forming a government. Every day,” says Mr. Jassim, sitting on the floor of the tent, as volunteers offered him cold packets of juice, bottles of water, and a plastic dish of rice with orange-brown sauce.

On one side of him was another pilgrim – much younger, clearly exhausted, and lying on his back with his feet elevated on a plastic chair, arm flung over his head. On the other side of him was a coffin draped in black, carried empty to symbolize the death of the imam.

“I voted, and I’m 90 percent disappointed. I hoped for a big change, but nothing has happened,” says Jassim. “There is no big difference, with the new government or the old government. They are the same people; they keep talking and doing nothing.

“Almost everybody agrees with me,” adds Jassim about his fellow worshipers. All the issues are waiting for the formation of the government – even the smallest things.

Security out in force

The pilgrimage reaches a climax on Wednesday night and Thursday morning. Iraqi security forces – who are have deployed a 200,000-strong force of police and soldiers to hinder attacks – closed some roads and bridges across the Tigris, and ordered carts and motorcycles off the streets in a bid to prevent bombers using them to infiltrate the marchers.

“We expect terrorist groups to launch terrorist attacks against pilgrims during the coming hours, but our contingency plans will foil their vicious acts,” said Iraqi Army Maj. Gen. Ahmed al-Saedi, who is in charge of security in the northern Kadhimiya district, named after the shrine, according to Reuters.

Mass Shiite pilgrimages were banned during the regime of Saddam Hussein, and after his overthrow by US forces, such religious events have come under frequent attack, most often by Sunni militants bent on raising sectarian tensions.

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