Hundreds of thousands of Shiites marched to a gold-domed mosque in harsh heat and sun Thursday in a pilgrimage of devotion to an 8th century saint that also starkly demonstrated their political power.
Only scattered strikes by Sunni insurgents marred the event, held amid tight security to avoid the attacks that have occurred during past gatherings.
"Long live Muqtada!" some pilgrims shouted as they paraded toward the Imam al-Kadhim shrine, referring to radical Shiite leader Muqtada al Sadr, whose Mahdi army is accused of death squad attacks. "May God kill his enemies!"
A few shook their fists at U.S. soldiers standing alongside the procession route, but the march was mostly peaceful.
Many said they intended their presence to show they could not be intimidated by Sunni insurgents who have devastated past gatherings, and who regularly target Shiites at markets and on buses.
"I have come here to get the blessing of the martyr imam and to challenge the terrorism of the Wahhabists," said Hussein Mizaal, a 21-year-old college student. He was referring to the austere Wahhabi strain of Sunni Islam, practiced mostly in Saudi Arabia but also identified with Sunni insurgents.
"We are not afraid of anyone except God," Mizaal said.
A citywide driving ban also was in effect until early Saturday to prevent suicide car bombings. It also improved Baghdad air quality.
Developments on Thursday
Diplomacy: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was in Iran to talk about security and electricity deals. Iranian officials told Maliki they were doing all they could to help stabilize his nation, but insisted that only a U.S. pullout would bring true peace. Maliki told reporters later that he did not discuss the issue of U.S. forces with the Iranians. President Bush said he was confident that Maliki shared the White House's view that Iran is a destabilizing force in the region.
U.S. deaths: The U.S. military announced the deaths Tuesday of two Marines in Anbar province, one in fighting and the other in a non-combat incident.
Violence: Seven pilgrims were killed when gunmen in a speeding car opened fire and threw hand grenades at them in the Dabouniya area, southeast of Baghdad, police said. Nine bodies were found in the capital.
Courts: The Marine Corps has dropped all charges against Capt. Randy W. Stone, 35, who had been accused of failing to investigate the deaths of 24 civilians in Haditha and another Marine accused in some of the killings. Charges were also dismissed against Lance Cpl. Justin Sharratt, who was accused of murdering three brothers in the assault that followed a deadly roadside bombing of U.S. troops.