At least one million pilgrims prayed in the Iraqi holy city of Samarra on Friday in a show of force called by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, as Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called for forgiveness for allies of Saddam Hussein.
Samarra, a Sunni-majority city 80 miles (125 kilometers) north of the capital and a former hotbed of Iraq's insurgency, houses a major Shiite mausoleum blown up by suspected al-Qaeda forces in 2006.
Sadr, head of the Mahdi army, last month urged the faithful to restore a traditional pilgrimage halted since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and to pray at Samarra's golden-domed shrine to commemorate the death of the 11th imam, Hassan al-Askari, at his mausoleum.
The commemoration falls this year on March 6. Iraqi television stations reported the gathering swelled to more than a million.
Pilgrims arrive in Samarra
"About 800,000 pilgrims arrived in the city," said Samarra governor Hamad Homoud al-Shagti well before midday as crowds continued to pour in.
"The security situation is good and there have not been any security violations so far," he told reporters. "Iraqi forces are deployed along the roads."
"Iraqi and U.S. air forces are hovering over the area" in helicopters, Shagti said.
Police Major General Rasheed Flayeh said cars had been banned from the city to prevent bombings. No serious incidents had been reported by mid-afternoon.
Tens of thousands of people died in violence sparked by the destruction three years ago by alleged al-Qaeda Sunni extremists of the dome of the revered al-Askari mosque, built in 944. The golden dome was added in 1905.
Although security has improved in Iraq recently, dozens of Shiites were killed last month in bomb blasts as they headed into the holy city of Karbala, south of Baghdad, for a major religious ceremony.
Seeking political unity
Prime Minister -Maliki, growing in strength as violence fades and Iraq tries to embrace political unity, called for forgiveness on Friday for allies of Saddam Hussein.
"We must reconcile with those committed mistakes, who were obliged in that difficult era to side with the past regime. Today they are again sons of Iraq," Maliki told a meeting of tribal leaders in Baghdad.
"We will reconcile with them, but on the condition they come back to us and turn the page on that dark part of Iraq's history ... What happened, happened," he said.
The call for forgiveness comes five weeks after January's provincial polls in which allies of Maliki, a Shiite and former opposition member who fled Iraq under Saddam and was sentenced to death in absentia, swept much of central and southern Iraq.
Parties across the spectrum are now hammering out agreements to form majority blocs on provincial councils across Iraq, with an eye to national elections at the end of the year.
Many of the players who have dominated Iraqi politics since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion appear unwilling to forgive the sectarian killing of recent years or set aside long-standing feuds over power and resources, many of which stem from Saddam's system of according privilege and power to fellow Sunni Arabs.
Iraq has passed legislation to reverse a deep government purge of members of Saddam's banned Baath party, instigated by U.S. authorities following the invasion. That decision helped fuel a bloody Sunni Arab insurgency.
While Maliki often speaks of the need for national reconciliation, some complain his Shi'ite-led government is dragging its feet on re-embracing former Baathists.
Some rivals, including Iraq's minority Kurds, fears Maliki will try to consolidate power, and have accused Maliki of edging toward authoritarianism.