( AP ) - Tens of thousands of Shiite pilgrims defied fears of violence and converged around a gold-domed mosque Wednesday in the first major religious procession since Shiite battles last month turned a procession into a scene of bloodshed.
Men in white Arab gowns and women shrouded in black passed through a series of searches as they packed the courtyard of the Imam Ali mosque and the narrow streets in the Shiite holy city of Najaf to mark the seventh-century death of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
"We are not afraid of terrorist attacks. Violence will not deter us from visiting Imam Ali shrine," said Karim Dohan, a 49-year-old government employee from Hillah who was wearing a black shirt to symbolize grief over the saint's death.
"Before coming to Najaf, I told my wife that to be killed near the shrine on such a holy day is an honor and reward to us. The security measures are tight and a little bit too excessive, but they are necessary to protect the pilgrims," he said, sitting with his wife and two children near the shrine.
Ali is the first spiritual leader of the Shiite branch of Islam and his followers split with majority Sunnis over who should succeed Muhammad as leader of the faith.
Najaf, home to Iraq's senior Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, was the site of one of the first car bombings as the Sunni-led insurgency got under way: a blast outside the Imam Ali mosque that killed at least 95 people on Aug. 29, 2003.
The following year, Najaf also was the scene of fierce fighting between U.S. troops and militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
In recent years, the city - about 100 miles south of Baghdad - has been largely spared the sectarian violence ravaging much of the country.
But violence has risen among Shiite factions jockeying for power in the oil-rich south as they look to an eventual U.S. withdrawal. Al-Qaida in Iraq also has planned an offensive of bombings during Ramadan, which ends in mid-October. Few have occurred so far.
The tensions boiled over on Aug. 29 when clashes between rival militia fighters during a pilgrimage in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, killed at least 52 people.
Provincial officials said militant followers of the two main rival Shiite power brokers - al-Sadr and the head of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim - had been ordered to keep a low profile and not exhibit political propaganda.
But authorities weren't taking any chances.
New checkpoints were erected in three concentric security rings, snipers watched from rooftops, and the city was closed to unauthorized vehicles, with buses dropping off visitors at a point near the shrine.
The U.S. military also has set up a temporary command on its former base outside Najaf, offering reconnaissance equipment, attack helicopters and a quick-reaction force on standby.
Maj. Gen. Othman Ali Farhood al-Ghanimy, the Iraqi army commander overseeing Najaf security, said 30,000 Iraqi security forces were involved in the operation throughout the entire province, and about 20,000 in the city itself.