KARBALA, Iraq - Vast crowds of black-clad Shiite devotees thronged shrines in the Iraqi holy city of Karbala on Friday, defying a spate of vicious sectarian attacks aimed at marring an annual holiday.
The start of the two day festival of Arbaeen, which marks the 40th day after the anniversary of the killing of Imam Hussein in Karbala in the year 680, came on the eve of a major regional peace conference in Baghdad.
According to Karbala's Governor Aqil Al-Khazali, three million pilgrims had arrived in the city.
"You can barely see the paving of the streets, which are filled with pilgrims," he declared, predicting that visitor numbers could hit six million.
"No security violation has taken place so far inside the holy city," he added, noting that security services were on alert but warning that his office was short of buses to get the pilgrims out of the city afterwards.
"With this crime they tried to divide Iraq and plant sedition and division," declared Hussein Khadim, who led a procession of devotees from the town of Diwaniyah, almost 100 kilometres (60 miles) away.
"Let the world know that we redeem this country and the family of the Prophet. We would not hesitate to walk to the shrine even if blood was shed like rivers. We defy terrorists and their crimes on pilgrims."
Clerics disagree on whether Friday or Saturday should be the official anniversary, and Karbala's events were due to cover both days.
Student groups beat their chests in unison and some whipped themselves with metal chains in a traditional sign of devotion.
Among huge crowds flying traditional black, green and yellow Shiite banners, many wrapped themselves in the Iraqi national flag and called for unity.
Nevertheless, many slammed the government for failing to halt the violence.
"I came to beg God to unite Iraqis after politicians failed," said Mahdi Saeed Jassim, a 50-year-old civil servant from Balbil province.
Cleric Sayed Ahmed al-Safi called on the Iraqi authorities during Friday prayers to offer greater protection to pilgrims.
"From this podium I speak to the government that it should direct a strong blow to those outlaws, terrorists and takfiris (Sunni extremists) so that everyone should feel secure," said Safi, who is the Karbala representative of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the highest religious authority for Iraq's majority Shiite population.
Iraq conference an encouraging first step
This weekend's international conference on Iraq in Baghdad deserves praise in itself but is only a faltering first step towards greater co-operation to resolve the crisis, experts say.
"It's a very positive step that it's happening, and encouraging," said Robert Lowe, from the London-based international affairs think-tank Chatham House, on the eve of the Saturday gathering in Iraq.
But he warned that it was "ambitious" to expect too much, given the "suspicions and tension" between the participants.
The ambassador-level meeting of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Iraq's neighbours, including Syria and Iran, was the first of its kind, Lowe said.
"You will not have an immediate consensus of what needs to be done in Iraq but if we at least achieve a dialogue on the rules of the game to prevent the conflict engulfing the region, that will be a very positive step," he added.
"It's in everybody's interest that this meeting takes place," said Nadim Shehadi, another researcher at Chatham House.
But he said the meeting may not be totally devoted to Iraq.
Peter Harling, from conflict resolution body the International Crisis Group, sees the conference as a way of beginning the process of containing the violent sectarian strife rather than solving it given its potential knock-on effects.
"There is already something to build on. There is a regional consensus around the need for Iraq to remain united and around the need to contain the civil war," he added.
"The dynamics (in Iraq) are such that obviously you could a spillover effect throughout the region and a particularly grave danger is the fact that, progressively, neighbouring states are being drawn into the conflict because they need to promote or defend their interests in Iraq."
Lowe agreed: "I don't think it's really in the interest of any of these countries for Iraq to deteriorate further because complete chaos and full-scale civil war doesn't serve their purposes.
"They would greatly fear the consequences of such instability spilling over."
But he said that the cause of Iraq's most pressing problems were rooted internally, despite the clear "external influences" on the bloody violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims.
Mark Thomas, from the London-based military think-tank the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), was pessimistic, saying he expected little or nothing from the meeting.
"You cannot separate Iraq from the nuclear crisis (in Iran) and this is the fundamental point," he added.
"You're not going to see Iran turn around and offer to help us because it would be against Iran's national interests and equally, you're not going to see the US turn around and offer to compromise on its demands on the nuclear programme."
For that reason, the conference could be seen as a public relations exercise, albeit with a greater show of unity among the "P5" security council members Britain, France, the United States, China and Russia.
Iraq currently constitutes the biggest hold Iran has over the United States and is preventing US troops from being redeployed east in any military action against the Islamic republic, he added.
"It (Iran) holds great sway with the Iraqi government, with the Shia population and with the militias there. The continued conflict is working to Iran's advantage."
US says captured Al-Qaeda leader
US forces captured 16 suspected insurgents on Friday including an Al-Qaeda leader known as "The Butcher" because of his penchant for beheading captives.
This suspect was one of six insurgents captured in an early morning raid in the northern city of Mosul in which a seventh suspect was killed, according to a statement from US military headquarters.
The Butcher is "allegedly responsible for numerous kidnappings, beheadings, and suicide operations in the Ramadi and Mosul areas," it said.
In the western city of Fallujah, troops captured two men suspected of helping foreign extremist fighters to slip into the country.
Eight more suspected members of an insurgent courier network were rounded up near the nearby town of Karmah, the statement said, including an "Al-Qaeda media emir" responsible for propaganda.
Two Iraqi soldiers were shot dead while driving in a car while a civilian died in a roadside bomb blast Friday in the oil hub of Kirkuk, a security official said.
US troops kill 12 insurgents near Baghdad airport
US troops supported by an Apache attack helicopter killed 12 insurgents who had set up an anti-aircraft heavy machine gun near Baghdad's international airport, the US military said on Friday.
The US forces had detected tracer fire from the gun after dark on Wednesday and moved in with ground troops, the statement said.
"As they moved toward the firing, they detected armed insurgents in an ambush position along both sides of a canal road. A truck was parked nearby," it said.
The troops called in close air support from AH-64 Apache attack aircraft.
"The helicopter engaged the enemy fighters, killing 12 and destroying the truck, which had an anti-aircraft heavy machine gun mounted in the bed," the statement said.