Iraqi pilgrims brave bombs for promise of a meal

Shiites from all over Iraq make the trek to Baghdad for the chance to eat free food provided in hospitality tents along the roads.

BAGHDAD // Driven by a mixture of grinding poverty and religious devotion, Shiite pilgrims continued their march through Baghdad yesterday, despite murderous bombings that have killed 70 and wounded 400 in three days.

The deadliest attack took place on Wednesday when a suicide bomber wearing an explosive belt killed 28 people in Adhamiyah, a Sunni neighbourhood on the pilgrimage route. Violence continued yesterday, with a series of blasts in eastern Baghdad killing three and wounding more than 50, many of them worshippers returning home. Just as it is an annual Shiite custom to walk to the shrine of Musa Kadhim, a revered imam buried in Baghdad, it has become a custom in recent years for Sunni militants to attack the pilgrims, a grim reminder of the sectarian divisions that still afflict Iraqi society.

Anticipating bloodshed, the government deployed some 200,000 security officers in the city, a prevention effort that failed repeatedly, underlining the difficulties of stopping determined insurgents. The hundreds of thousands of Shiites making the journey to Kadhimiyah, the neighbourhood named after Imam Kadhim, also understood the attacks would come, a fact that did nothing to deter them. "We know that we are targets for the Sunni extremists but even if I knew I was going to be one of the victims it would not stop me being here," said Abu Abdullah, a 48-year-old father of 10. He made the 370-kilometre journey from his home city of Nasariyah, in southern Iraq, on foot, accompanied by four of his sons.

While the huge pilgrimages undertaken by Iraq's Shiite community are a reflection of powerful religious sentiment, the significance of poverty is a commonly overlooked factor in the willingness of so many to endure gruelling hardships and to face the bombers. Hospitality tents, paid for by wealthy businessmen, political parties or foundations, line the roads used by pilgrims, who come from as far away as Basra, 550 km south of the capital. Meals are provided free of charge to the walkers, and sometimes cash handouts or food supplies are given to the needy.

It is a massive incentive for the likes of Abu Abdullah. Unemployed and painfully thin - like his sons - he said he was unable to provide for his family and used the opportunity of religious celebrations for a practical purpose - to eat. "At home, we have little food," he said. "When we walk, we get better meals than I could dream of getting; there is rice and meat and vegetables and Pepsi in the tents, we can eat three times a day.

"As long as there is food here, we will walk. It's not the only reason, I want to do my religious duty, but I need to eat too." He was far from being alone in seeing the journey as a means of physical survival, calculating that the opportunity to eat properly outweighed the danger of the inevitable insurgent bombs. Mohammad Abed Ali, a 13-year-old from Diwaniyah, 180 km south of Baghdad, trekked up and down the pilgrimage trail in the weeks leading up to final day's celebrations, which took place yesterday. He collected food, either cooked or raw, in a large sack and ferried it back to his widowed mother and sisters.

"I walked for two weeks getting food from the tents," he said. "Since my father died it's the only way we can survive." The teenager said the relentless walking in Iraq's searing summer heat came as a welcome change from his day job. A labourer in Diwaniyah market, he said he was poorly paid, regularly beaten and had been the victim of attempted rapes. "Walking is a way for me to live, and it brings me closer to the imams and the family of the Prophet," he said.

Talk of a Sunni-Shiite rift was brushed aside by many, including Salema Khadim, a 34-year-old from Diyala province. She was making the pilgrimage with 20 of her neighbours, all women, some of them Sunnis. "We come for food for our children," she said. "I see no shame in that. It is my destiny. The shame is on the government and the rich, who waste and steal all the money instead of sharing it. "This is my only chance to get something back."