Seven Shiite pilgrims traveling to a shrine in Baghdad were shot to death in an ambush in a Sunni town south of the capital Sunday as authorities tightened security ahead of a major religious festival that is expected to draw tens of thousands of worshippers.
The U.S. military, meanwhile, said two new operations will begin early next month in a bid to rout insurgents from rural hideouts in northern Iraq and solidify recent security gains in urban areas.
Shiite pilgrims have frequently been targeted by car bombs and gunmen during years of sectarian warfare. In 2005, at least 1,000 people also were killed in a bridge stampede caused by rumors of a suicide bomber in Baghdad during the Kazimiyah pilgrimage.
But recent pilgrimages have been relatively peaceful as a U.S. troop buildup, a Sunni revolt against al-Qaida in Iraq and a Shiite militia cease-fire helped drive violence down to its lowest level in more than four years.
The gunmen were hiding on the side of the road when they opened fire, killing the seven young men near Madain, about 14 miles southeast of Baghdad, said a police officer familiar with the incident.
An official at the Baghdad hospital where the bodies were taken confirmed the victims were killed by gunfire, but both spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to release the information.
The slain men, aged 20 to 25, were on foot and had begun their trek in the Shiite town of Suwayrah to the south, the policeman said.
Former al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold
The area where the attack occurred is a former al-Qaida in Iraq stronghold that has been touted by the U.S. military as a success story with its streets now patrolled by U.S.-allied Sunni groups known as Awakening Councils.
Police believe the gunmen were seeking to rekindle sectarian tensions in the area.
Tens of thousands of people are expected to converge on the Baghdad neighborhood of Kazimiyah this week to mark the death of an eighth century Shiite saint buried in the golden domed shrine there.
The main Iraqi military spokesman in Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Qassim al-Moussawi, said 100,000 Iraqi security forces will be deployed along with U.S. reinforcements and air support to protect the ceremonies, which culminate Tuesday.
Vehicles have been banned from the area and most Baghdad bridges will be closed to traffic, al-Moussawi said, adding that pilgrims were banned from carrying weapons or cell phones — rules that have been widely flouted in the past.
He also said some 200 women also will be deployed to search female pilgrims to prevent would-be suicide bombers from hiding explosives under their all-encompassing black Islamic robes.
Al-Moussawi said authorities had received tips that "terrorist groups" planned attacks close to the shrine and in adjacent areas, but he wasn't more specific.
With overall violence down in Baghdad, the U.S. military announced plans to chase al-Qaida in Iraq and other insurgents into northern safe havens where they have fled crackdowns in urban areas such as Mosul and Baqouba.
Maj. Gen. Mark Hertling, who commands U.S. forces in northern Iraq, said the Iraqi army will lead a new offensive in Diyala province, while his troops will focus on remote areas throughout the north.
The purpose of the offensives — dubbed "Omens of Prosperity" and "Iron Pursuit," respectively — is to build on security gains in urban areas of the north, Hertling said.
"We have secured the key cities of the north. We have seen al-Qaida continue to be pushed into what we call the support zones, the areas of the desert," he said. "We will continue to pursue them as they continue to try and find safe havens in the deserts, in the hills and in the palm groves."
Hertling said the U.S. and Iraqi military will flood the area with soldiers, and he expressed optimism that much improved Iraqi security forces will succeed where past efforts have failed.
‘Many hiding places’
Violence has been reduced by 75 percent across northern Iraq, with attacks dropping from about 2,600 in June 2007 to about 650 last month, Hertling said.
But he acknowledged the threat from al-Qaida in Iraq and insurgents remains strong.
"There are very many hiding places in the rural areas and those are the areas that now the Iraqi security forces have to go after," he said.
In other violence on Sunday, a senior member of a Sunni political party and his son were wounded and two of his bodyguards were killed when a bomb stuck to the bottom of their car exploded in the Anbar province city of Fallujah, police said.
In a separate development Sunday, the U.S. military admitted that American soldiers killed three innocent civilians after opening fire on a car last month on the heavily secured Baghdad airport road.
In a statement, the military reversed an earlier claim that the victims were suspected militants who shot at a parked American convoy. They blamed the shooting on a series of misunderstandings that started with the soldier's perception that the car was approaching at a high rate of speed. When it failed to heed warnings to stop, they opened fire, the report found.