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Wheeling pilgrims a risky business in Iraq

Written by: Staff
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KUFA, Iraq, July 7 (Reuters) Ali Hafidh, 12, wakes up every morning at dawn on the makeshift rickshaw he uses to ferry invalid pilgrims to Shi'ite shrines in Iraq.

Yesterday, Ali decided to work in Najaf, a decision which may have saved his life after a suicide car bomber blasted two buses carrying Iranian pilgrims outside a shrine in nearby Kufa, killing 12 people and wounding 41.

Police said several children who make a living wheeling pilgrims were caught in the blast.

''My father died so I had to leave school to work because I am the oldest brother. I wake up at five and work until midnight and sleep on the streets near the shrines,'' said Ali, a skinny boy with an unkempt mop of hair.

He said he gets up early to make sure he doesn't miss the early-rising pilgrims as they descend upon the shrines of Kufa, Najaf and other holy cities of Iraq's Shi'ite south.

''I was supposed to be in Kufa when the bomb went off but I fell asleep. Praise be to God,'' said Laith Ali, 17, another rickshaw driver. ''I feel very sorry for the cart workers as well as the Iranians,'' he told Reuters.

The profession has become increasingly dangerous in post-war Iraq. Shi'ite worshippers, many of them from neighbouring Iran, have been targeted before in mass attacks by Sunni Arab insurgents. Entire crowds have been blown up by suicide attackers during the Shura religious ceremony.

''I don't have a house, my father was killed in a blast in Baghdad and my mother married a man I hate. I hope the Iranians keep coming so our work is not affected,'' said Laith Ali.

Ali Hafidh said he makes 10-15 dollars a day wheeling invalid or elderly pilgrims back and forth from their hotels. He sometimes ferries two people at a time in his rickshaw -- a metre-long wooden plank and two discarded small tyres.

When there are no pilgrims, the boys carry food and other goods. But they said pilgrims pay good tips.

Despite the risks, some are taking up the rickshaw as well-paid jobs have become scarce in Iraq's crippled economy.

''I started this job four months ago because my salary was not enough. I make more money pushing this cart and ferrying pilgrims,'' said Gaith Ali Idan, 28, an ex-government employee.

Abu Ali, 44, said he has to go through police and army checkpoints as he carries customers around town.

''We face a lot of problems, but I can earn a living,'' he said.

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