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Iraqi Forces Secure Safety of 1 Million Pilgrims

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 28, 2006 – Millions of Shiite Muslims from around the Middle East recently were able to make a pilgrimage to the Iraqi holy cities of Karbala and Najaf with few security problems. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today that this shows a lot about the capabilities of Iraqi security forces.

At a Pentagon news conference, Rumsfeld and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Peter Pace also spoke about an operation in Baghdad that freed a hostage, confiscated arms and shut down an improvised-explosive-device factory.

Arbaeen, which marks the death of Imam Hussein -- a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, attracts more than a million Shiite Muslims from Iraq, Iran, Bahrain, Kuwait and other areas of the Middle East to the two holy shrines. The pilgrims are an "easy and very visible" terrorist target, Rumsfeld said. Yet they were able to worship without fear.

In 2004, terrorists killed more than 120 Iraqis and wounded over 300 during the pilgrimage, the secretary said. In 2005, terrorists killed 33 Iraqis and wounded 130. This year, with Iraqi security forces providing security, "12 were killed and two wounded in connection with the pilgrimage," he said. "So this year's pilgrimage passed, for the most part, peacefully."

Iraq is benefiting from added training and increased military capabilities of the 241,000 Iraqi soldiers and police, Rumsfeld said. "Provincial governors, provincial police chiefs and Iraqi security personnel executed an extensive security plan," he said.

"In a situation like exists in Iraq today, one measure of what is happening is to note things that are not happening," he said. "Admittedly, that's a difficult thing to do."

He said that it is easier to report on a bomb that explodes than one that doesn't. "A car bomb that kills Iraqis outside a police recruiting station makes for a clearly understandable story, compared to the fact that hundreds of Iraqis volunteers ... step up to volunteer despite that attack," he said.

The relative success of the Arbaeen pilgrimage points to the future in Iraq, Rumsfeld said. "If the coalition does not have an adequate number of forces on the ground, as some argue, how did the Iraqi forces with coalition support manage to protect millions of Iraqis? And if terrorists tried and failed to pull off a massive attack, what does this say about their strength and their capabilities?" he asked.

In discussing a weekend raid against an old school complex in Baghdad that has become increasingly contentious, Pace said 190 Iraqi special operations soldiers led the attack with about 60 American special operators in support. The Iraqis moved on receipt of credible intelligence that the complex was host to a kidnapping ring. Shiite parties have said raiders gunned down innocent Iraqis at prayer.

As the Iraqi special operators moved into the area, they began taking fire from buildings outside the complex and the complex itself, Pace said. The Iraqis returned fire and attacked the complex itself.

"The Iraqi forces themselves went ... into the main target area," he said. Inside the building they found a small minaret and a prayer room. The Iraqis found rocket-propelled grenades, weapons, ammunition and bomb-making materials, Pace said. In addition, they freed a man held hostage, and he identified two men as his captors.

"So this is a very good operation on the part of the Iraqi special operations forces into a compound that turned out to have other than religious pilgrims in it," Pace said.

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Donald H. Rumsfeld
Gen. Peter Pace, USMC

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