Page last updated at 04:59 GMT, Monday, 28 December 2009

Iraqi forces 'defuse nine bombs' in Karbala

Pilgrims gather in Karbala
Karbala is the focal point of the Ashura festival celebrated by Shia Muslims

Iraqi security forces say they defused nine bombs in the city of Karbala as hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims gathered for a religious festival.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki praised the "exceptional efforts" of security forces in averting attacks on pilgrims taking part in the Ashura festival.

Tight security was in place following large-scale attacks in previous years.

More than 20,000 police were deployed across the city and marksmen were placed on many buildings.

Analysts say the government is keen to show that the withdrawal of US forces will not leave a security vacuum in the country.

Shia muslims had flocked to Karbala on Sunday for the final day of Ashura, which mourns the 7th Century death in Karbala of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

The ceremony in Karbala reached a climax with thousands of pilgrims running to a shrine while beating their heads with their hands.

Although festivities passed peacefully in the city, violence did mar events elsewhere.

Iraqi officials said five pilgrims were killed and 15 injured when a bomb blast hit a procession in Tuz Khormato, near Kirkuk in north-east Iraq on Sunday.

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