updated 8/8/2007 9:54:31 PM ET 2007-08-09T01:54:31

There is now only one way to reach Baghdad's holiest Shiite shrine — on foot through layer after layer of security cordons and checkpoints.

On Thursday, more than 1 million faithful are expected to flow through streets cleared of all vehicles and under the watch of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi forces. The goal of the pilgrims is to honor an 8th century Shiite saint.

The security teams have only the deadly realities of modern Baghdad in mind: possible attacks by Sunni extremists seeking to drive divisions between Iraq's main Muslim groups.

Shiite religious processions have become easy targets for suspected Sunni bombers and gunmen. In March, twin blasts — timed for maximum carnage — killed more than 115 Shiite pilgrims during rites to mark the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

Even rumors can be fatal. In August 2005 — in the same area where the full-scale security effort is in place _ an estimated 1,000 pilgrims suffocated and were trampled to death in a stampede after reports spread that a suicide attacker was among them.

Last month, tips from local residents led U.S. forces to four car bombs near the mosque, said Sgt. Scott Long, 27, with the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment.

"I think there will be an increase in violence. I hope it goes off peacefully, but it's a huge target," said Long, a Blacksburg, Va., native, who was one of dozens soldiers patrolling roads around the shrine Wednesday.

U.S. troops, however, stayed away from the mosque out of religious sensitivity, said the top U.S. ground commander in the area, Task Force Justice leader Lt. Col. Steve Miska.

Ritualized self-flagellation
Huge throngs of Shiite worshippers — some flogging themselves with iron chains or cutting their foreheads with swords — are expected to walk toward the mosque, the shrine of Imam al-Kadhim, located in the northern Kazimiyah neighborhood.

The ritualized self-flagellation is a grieving rite that was banned under Saddam Hussein. Since his ouster in the 2003 U.S. invasion, Shiite political parties have encouraged huge turnouts at such religious festivals to display their power in Iraq's new order.

By Wednesday, more than 1,500 pilgrims had passed through several checkpoints into the area, said an Iraqi police lieutenant who identified himself only as Fadil, because of security concerns.

Beating her chest, Zeinab Muhammad Ali had pushed a baby stroller during the 90-minute walk to the site, with six more young children trailing behind her. The 42-year-old said she was undeterred by the threat of violence.

"He's my imam — he died for us Shiites — so we must visit and mourn him," she said.

Mosque heavily guarded
More than 1,800 Iraqi security forces were guarding the mosque complex, including 625 agents inside the shrine, officials said. Shiite militiamen also are known to be deployed throughout the area.

"The vulnerable points are where pilgrims are assembling to come in — checkpoints, bus depots — places like that. Then, obviously, the crowds around the shrine. You'll have al-Qaida try to launch rockets and/or mortars to inflict casualties," said Miska, 39, from Greenport, N.Y.

This year, water trucks have been stationed at intersections throughout the Kazimiyah neighborhood to quench thirst in the 115-degree heat. Tents strung with colored lights and flowers provided shade for travelers, many of whom came from around Iraq.

Men piled firewood for bonfires, where big cauldrons will hold soup and rice for passers-by. One young boy used a squirt gun to spray cool water over the crowd.

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