KERBALA, Iraq - Hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite pilgrims flocked to the holy Iraqi city of Kerbala on Sunday amid tight security to foil any sectarian attack, and an ex-prime minister said Iraq was already embroiled in civil war.
Flying flags and flailing themselves, a sea of people filled roads to Kerbala ahead of Arbain, mourning the dead in a 7th century battle that confirmed a schism in Islam which has left Iraq dangerously divided between Sunnis and Shi'ites today.
The proceedings, which climax on Monday evening, were calm aside from a mortar round that hurt no one but was a reminder of bombings that have caused carnage at previous Shi'ite rituals.
US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, writing to mark the third anniversary of the invasion, said disengaging from Iraq now would be like handing Germany "back to the Nazis" in 1945.
In Baghdad Shi'ite, Sunni and Kurdish leaders were still struggling to form a national unity government more than three months after elections, raising fears that a political vacuum will play into the hands of insurgents and fuel violence.
Twelve bodies with gunshot wounds were found around the capital, police said, apparently the latest victims of sectarian violence that threatens to explode into all-out conflict.
Iran, which has strong ties to fellow Shi'ites leading the interim government in Baghdad, has agreed to an Iraqi proposal to hold talks with the United States on stabilising Iraq.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, on Sunday backed a call by an Iraqi Shi'ite leader for the talks with Iran, which Washington accuses of meddling in Iraq and seeking nuclear arms.
"I am one of the people who supports this. The problem of Iraq has become an international one," he said.
Iraqi political sources said they expected the US ambassador to meet Iran's representatives this week.
General George Casey, US commander in Iraq, questioned Iran's motives. "They're playing, I think, a very delicate balancing act. On the one hand, they want a stable neighbour. On the other hand I don't believe they want to see us succeed here," Casey told Fox television.
In Tehran, an Iranian official said he expected the talks to focus on "the timetable for the departure of occupying forces."
Greater Iranian influence in Iraq could fuel resentment among Sunni Arabs who are deeply suspicious of Tehran.
Secular former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said Iraq was nearing the "point of no return" towards all-out civil war.
"We are losing each day an average 50 to 60 people throughout the country, if not more. If this is not civil war, then God knows what civil war is," he told BBC television.
US Vice-President Dick Cheney said terrorists were trying to stop the formation of a democratically elected government in Iraq by violence such as the February 22 bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, which sparked a wave of sectarian reprisals.
"What we've seen is a serious effort by them to foment civil war, but I don't think they've been successful," Cheney said on CBS television's "Face the Nation."
President George W. Bush, speaking to reporters on his return to Washington from Camp David, urged Iraqi leaders to get a unity government "up and running" and added "I'm encouraged by the progress." He ignored a question about Allawi's comments.
Arab and Western leaders worry that if Iraq were to crumble, sectarian violence would spread throughout the Middle East, and Europe and the United States would also feel the impact.
Rumsfeld warned of dire consequences if the United States pulled out of Iraq too quickly.
"Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis," he wrote in the Washington Post ahead of Monday's anniversary of the invasion on March 20, 2003.
The Kerbala authorities, wary of any repeat of the Samarra shrine attack, deployed at least 8,000 Iraqi police and soldiers in the city. Local officials say they expect up to 2 million people to attend the mourning ceremonies on Monday evening in Kerbala, 110 km southwest of Baghdad.
North of the capital, US troops killed a boy, his parents and five other people after their patrol was ambushed in the Sunni town of Duluiya early on Sunday, Iraqi police said. The US military said troops killed seven "terrorists".