Thousands of Iraqi Shiite pilgrims neared the end of a major rite on Monday, while others were already beginning long treks home during which they might again be vulnerable to attack.
Defying the suicide bombs that have threatened gatherings of Shiite Muslims since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled the Sunni-led government of Saddam Hussein, hundreds of thousands if not millions poured into the holy city of Karbala.
Under green and black flags, crowds of mourners, beating their heads and chests chanting "Ya, Hussein" passed through the shrines of Imam Hussein for the Arbain (40 days) ceremony in the holy city of Karbala 80 km (50 miles) south of Baghdad in an endless procession.
The rite culminates at Hussein's gilded grave, where worshippers weep and pray, while giant television screens in the city show films of Hussein's deeds and preachers chant and recount Shiite tales through loudspeakers.
But Karbala was clearly overwhelmed. Its few hotels overflowed with guests, water ran dry in public toilets, the elderly and the weak fainted in droves from the crush of the crowds and thousands slept in the streets or in mosques.
Raghad Mohammed, a pilgrim from Baghdad, said he was concerned about how to get home, and was exhausted after walking all the way to Karbala and then spending days without sleep.
Worries about the way home were echoed by many.
"The security situation is not 100 percent stable," said engineer Inas Yunis, recalling a suicide bombing on Friday that killed 42 people on a route to Karbala and other attacks by suspected Sunni Islamist insurgents, like al-Qaeda, who label Shiites as heretics.
Attacks despite heavy security
While security was heavy in Karbala, with snipers on rooftops, eight people died on Monday in two roadside bombings.
The first bomb killed four and wounded 13 on a minibus in the sprawling slum of Sadr City, a stronghold of supporters of anti-American Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The second also killed four and wounded 13 in a minibus, this time in Kamaliya, another Shiite area.
Karbala's provincial police chief Ali Jassem Mohammed has 30,000 police and soldiers, including plainclothes police and snipers, deployed, with security cameras installed at key junctions around shrines and along the roads.
About 1,500 policewomen were in charge of searching female pilgrims.
The measures did not prevent a suicide blast on Friday, nor a roadside bomb on Thursday that killed eight people near the Imam Hussein mosque.
An attempted suicide bombing near Karbala was foiled on Saturday after police pounced on a would-be attacker.
Sunday passed without incident in Karbala, leaving the route home, when the pilgrims will again be dispersed and vulnerable, as the remaining challenge for security forces.
U.S. officials say attacks are attempts to reignite the sectarian slaughter that almost tore Iraq apart.
Politics may also be a factor after allies of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki posted gains in Jan. 31 local elections.
That set Maliki's Dawa Party up for a muscular run in parliamentary polls at the end of the year, and rivals may want to undermine the perception that he can take some credit for the reduction in bloodshed, security sources say.