BAGHDAD – Iraq said Thursday it would seal its borders next week to prevent Shi’ite pilgrims flooding into the country, in the latest emergency measure intended to thwart insurgent violence.
The borders will be closed between Feb. 17 and Feb. 22, in a move a government spokesman said was designed to coincide with the climax of Ashura, a major Shi’ite religious ceremony.
Millions of Shi’ites travel from across the region to holy sites in Iraq for Ashura, during which many parade and beat themselves in homage to the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in 680 AD.
Suicide bombers attacked pilgrims last year in Baghdad and Kerbala, killing at least 171 people.
“During these dates people will flood to Iraq from neighboring countries because of Ashura, which will make it difficult to ensure the safety of Iraqis and the visitors,” government spokesman Thaer al-Naqib told Reuters.
Naqib said foreign pilgrims should make sure they arrived before the borders closed.
The government, battling a raging insurgency, has adopted special laws that allow it to declare curfews, close borders and detain suspects without normal legal process.
Drivers trying to enter Iraq from Syria, Iran and Jordan say that many border crossings are already shut, meaning foreign Shi’ites will struggle to make the holy journey this year.
EIGHT MORE DEAD
Attacks killed eight Iraqis Thursday. A car bomb in central Baghdad left three civilians dead and a U.S. army spokesman said the blast might have been aimed at an American convoy that passed by shortly before.
He said there were no U.S. casualties but the explosion scattered tangled metal and wreckage across Tahrir Square, a major intersection lined with shops and market stalls.
Two Iraqi civilians were killed by a roadside bomb in the oil city of Kirkuk, 250 km (155 miles) north of Baghdad, police said. Two other Iraqis were killed by a roadside bomb near the market in Baiji in northern Iraq. Witnesses said an Iraqi army driver was shot dead in Balad, north of Baghdad.
Police also said three officers were wounded during a gun battle with insurgents near the town of Salman Pak, southeast of Baghdad, following a car bombing.
In the latest in a series of attacks on Shi’ites, Sheikh Amar al-Helali, a Baghdad representative for Iraq’s most revered Shi’ite cleric Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was wounded by gunmen together with his driver in Baghdad Wednesday.
Scores of Iraqis have been killed since the country’s historic election on Jan. 30, which is expected to hand power to a coalition of Shi’ite Islamist groups.
Iraq’s Electoral Commission is making final checks on some 300 ballot boxes over the next two to three days and will release a final vote tally soon.
Partial results show the alliance of mainly Shi’ite Islamist parties is well in the lead, as expected. A coalition of Kurdish parties is in second place and a bloc led by Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is third.
The Shi’ite alliance, formed with Sistani’s blessing, says it will demand the post of prime minister in Iraq’s next government. The Kurds want their candidate, Jalal Talabani, to be president.
Many in the Sunni Arab minority, which dominated the country during the rule of Saddam Hussein, stayed away from the polls, either because of violence or calls for a boycott from several leading Sunni political groups.
Partial results are not yet in from several mainly Sunni provinces. But results from Salahadin, a strongly Sunni province that includes Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit, indicate few Sunnis voted.
There are fears that Sunni exclusion from the political process could fuel the insurgency, which is mainly being waged by Sunni guerrillas.