KARBALA: Pilgrims from across Iraq and around the world thronged the shrine city of Karbala on Thursday for the climax of annual mourning rituals amid tight security over fears of militant attacks.
An Agence France Presse correspondent said massive crowds of people flooded the streets of the holy city, which officials say has seen millions of visitors in the run-up to the Arbaeen (40th Day) commemorations, as slogans pledging loyalty to the cause of Imam al-Hussain blared from loudspeakers.
Black, green and red flags fluttered around sprawling shrine complex housing the tombs of Imam Hussein and his half-brother Abol Fazl Abbas, revered figures in Shia Islam who are buried in Karbala, which lies 110 kilometers south of Baghdad.
Provincial governor Amal al-Din al-Har said he expected some 16 million worshipers would have passed through the city by the end of the commemorations, many walking for days from across Iraq despite threats of violence by anti-Shia insurgents.
Among them are around 700,000 pilgrims from 30 different countries, leaving all of the city’s 700 hotels packed to the brim.
Arbaeen marks 40 days after the Ashura anniversary commemorating the slaying of Imam Hussein (AS) by the Umayad army of caliph Yazid bin-Muawiya in 680 AD.
Now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein barred the Ashura and Arbaeen commemorations during 30 years of his rule.
“We are defying terrorism, and we are following the example of Karbala in sacrifice and redemption,” said 40-year-old Mohammed Swadi, who noted that he had walked for 12 days from the port city of Basra for the occasion.
“This is not much when it comes to expressing our love for Imam Hussein.”
Another pilgrim said she had walked for three days from the central city of Hilla in order to attend Arbaeen in Karbala.
“I have a skin disease that doctors could not treat, and I vowed to attend the pilgrimage walking on foot, and ask Allah with the name of Hussein to cure me,” said the 35-year-old woman who gave her name as Umm Ali.
The threat of insurgent attacks has spurred authorities to deploy 35,000 soldiers and policemen to Karbala, including 2,500 policewomen at checkpoints across the city, with aerial surveillance also watching over pilgrims.
Attacks on pilgrims in the past week alone have left at least 18 people dead, two of whom were killed in an explosion while walking along the route from Baghdad to Karbala on Wednesday.
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