Eight Iraqi soldiers were killed in fighting with jihadists south of Baghdad as the army battled to secure the route used by hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims, officers said Saturday.
Pilgrims taking part in Ashura commemorations, which mark the death of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam, are often targeted with bombings during the annual rituals, which take place this month.
But this year's march to the shrine city of Karbala is set to be more dangerous than most, with militants from the Islamic State (IS) group, which has overrun large areas of the country, holding territory along the way.
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The attack by security forces on IS militants in the Jurf al-Sakhr area began on Friday, an army captain said.
Eight soldiers were killed in the fighting, the captain and an army major said.
The officers said dozens of militants were also killed, but Iraqi officials frequently announce high death tolls for jihadists that are not possible to independently verify.
"Securing Jurf al-Sakhr is securing Karbala and the south completely, as the gateway to the south begins from Jurf al-Sakhr," Karbala governor Aqil al-Turaihi told journalists during a visit to the area.
Securing Jurf al-Sakhr would also better position Iraqi forces to strike at militants in nearby Anbar province, where they have suffered a string of setbacks, prompting warnings that the entire province could fall.