Baghdad: Iraq stepped up security amid fears of the Islamic State group launching major attacks as thousands of Shiites flocked on Monday to the shrine city of Karbala for an annual pilgrimage.
The pilgrims are prime targets for the IS jihadists, who have carried out a series of mass executions in recent days, killing scores of members of a tribe in Iraq's western Anbar province.
Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from Iraq and abroad are heading to Karbala for tomorrow's peak of Ashura, which marks the death of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.
At least 19 people were killed in bomb blasts targeting Shiites in Baghdad yesterday and Iraqi security forces were on alert for further attacks.
Pilgrims have been targeted during Ashura before, but this year's commemorations face even greater danger after IS seized control of large areas of Iraq in a June offensive. Like other Sunni extremists, IS considers Shiites heretics.
Authorities have deployed thousands of security personnel and allied militiamen to protect the pilgrims, in what will be a major test for the new government headed by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
"The security plan is fully in effect and the security forces are on a state of high alert," an Iraqi police colonel told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Police were deployed throughout Shiite neighbourhoods of Baghdad and security forces are guarding the 100-kilometre route from the capital to Karbala.
In Karbala, more than 26,000 members of the security forces were deployed, backed up by helicopters providing air support and monitoring desert areas, army Staff Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanimi told reporters.
At the entrance to the city, police were using X-ray trucks to scan vehicles and sniffer dogs were checking arrivals. Some 1,500 policewomen were also deployed to check female pilgrims.
The Sunni extremist IS group has declared a "caliphate" in parts of Iraq and neighbouring Syria under its control, imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law and committing widespread atrocities.