An uneasy silence cloaked the streets of Baghdad yesterday at the start of a two-day vehicle ban aimed at preventing attacks during a major Shiite religious gathering. Seven pilgrims hoping to join the rally were shot dead in a Sunni neighborhood.
The victims were among a group of Shiites who were walking through Adil neighborhood in western Baghdad late on Friday when they were sprayed with gunfire by assailants in a moving car, said police Lieutenant Maitham Abdul Razzaq.
Seven more people were killed yesterday in various parts of Iraq, including four soldiers in a roadside bomb explosion.
It was an ominous start to the ceremonies yesterday and today, when Shiites will mark the death in 799 of Imam Moussa Kadhim, one of the 12 major Shiite saints. The rally will take place around the imam's shrine in Kazimiyah in northern Baghdad.
About 1,000 people died during last year's commemoration when rumors of suicide bombers triggered a mass stampede on a bridge across the Tigris River. It was the biggest single day death toll since the US-led invasion in March 2003.
The vehicle ban went into effect on Friday night and was expected to remain until tomorrow morning. A Cabinet statement said the ban would apply to about 16 neighborhoods, but later, Brigadier General Qassim al-Musawi, spokesman of the armed forces general command, said the order applied citywide.
Heeding the warning, no cars and very few people were seen on the streets except police and army vehicle patrols. Although residents were allowed to walk to work, most appeared to be staying at home. Two cars that ventured out of a lane into the main road were seen being stopped by police and turned back.
But the area around the shrine in Kazimiyah was bustling. Shops sold T-shirts with portraits of Kadhim and cooking vessels were piled up in a stall that planned to distribute food to pilgrims.
A government statement said it was "absolutely forbidden" to carry weapons, cellphones and any type of bag into the shrine.
The Shiite ceremonies are taking place during a major US-Iraqi security operation aimed at curbing Sunni-Shiite violence, which threatens the stability of the new government of national unity. Nearly 12,000 US and Iraqi troop reinforcements are coming in to take control of this city of 6.5 million people neighborhood by neighborhood.
Yesterday, four soldiers were killed and four were wounded when a roadside bomb struck their convoy in Diwaniyah, 130km south of Baghdad, police 1st Lieutenant Raed Jabir said.
At about the same time, a one-time member of Saddam Hussein's former Baath party was shot dead in Daghara near Diwaniyah.
Also yesterday, police Sergeant Major Safaa Sabah Abdul-Wahid was gunned down in Amarah, 290km southeast of Baghdad, said police Captain Hussein Karim.
A policeman was shot dead by a sniper in Mosul, 360km northwest of Baghdad Saturday, police Colonel Jumaa Ahmed said.
On Friday, the Iraqi government announced that Jordan's Ambassador Ahmed al-Lozi had presented his credentials to President Jalal Talabani on Thursday.
Jordan is the first Arab state to send a fully accredited ambassador to Iraq, a major display of political support for its US-backed government.