A group of Daesh militants in a file photo. Image Credit: REX USA

BAGHDAD: Three Iraqi troops were killed on Thursday when a suspected Daesh (Islamic State) militant detonated an explosive vest, state media reported, as security forces remain on high alert for sectarian attacks.

The soldiers were carrying out a raid on a suspected Daesh cell in the Tarmiya district north of the capital after receiving intelligence that the militants were planning to target Shiites making the annual pilgrimage to the shrine and burial site of Imam Moussa Al Kadhim in northern Baghdad, the state-run Iraqi News Agency reported.

In addition to the suicide bomber, two other members of the cell were killed in clashes with the army, it said. The army was searching the surrounding area for other potential militants.

Meanwhile, amid chilly temperatures and heavy security, thousands of black-clad pilgrims from across Iraq marched on Thursday in the annual procession in marking the death of a Shiite saint.

Pilgrims traditionally travel on foot to the shrine and burial site of Imam Moussa Al Kadhim, the seventh of 12 Shiite imams who died in a Baghdad prison in the eighth century. The procession leads to the site in the northern Baghdad neighborhood of Kadimiyah. Participants wear black, with some carrying out self-flagellation to publicly express their mourning.

Tents were pitched along the kilometres of road that the pilgrims were walking on Thursday, handing out food and water free of charge.

Thousands of Iraqi security forces were deployed across the city to ensure the safety of the pilgrims, while some roads and bridges were closed to vehicles to allow pedestrian traffic only.

Sadiq Jaffar, 27, of Baghdad, told The Associated Press he was taking part in the pilgrimage “because it is important to my identity, despite all the problems that the country is facing such as the increase in the price of food and the rampant corruption.”

This year’s pilgrimage takes place just ahead of the 20-year anniversary next month of the US invasion of Iraq that led to the downfall of longtime dictator Saddam Hussain. Hussain had banned such pilgrimages from taking place.

During years of civil war that followed, insurgents repeatedly targeted Shiite pilgrims during their religious ceremonies.

Iraq emerged from a yearlong political stalemate with the formation of a government in October, but hopes for stabilization of the political and economic situation were shortlived.

Measures taken by the United States in recent months to stamp out money laundering and the channeling of dollars to Iran and Syria from Iraq have severely restricted Iraq’s access to hard currency, leading to devaluation of the currency and inflation of prices.