Bombs Target Karbala Pilgrims, 23 Killed

BAGHDAD: Violence across Iraq, including bombings against Shia pilgrims, killed 23 people on Wednesday as devotees massed in a shrine city on the eve of major commemoration rituals often targeted by extremist militants.

Bombings on Wednesday mostly struck north and west of Baghdad, targeting pilgrims heading to holy city of Karbala.

On the outskirts of Baquba, north of the capital and one of Iraq’s most violent areas, three coordinated bombs struck a gathering of Shia pilgrims. Overall, eight people were killed and 25 others were wounded in the blasts, security and medical officials said.

Millions of Shia Muslims from Iraq and around the world mark Ashura, which this year climaxes in Iraq on Thursday, by setting up procession tents where food is distributed to passers-by and pilgrims can gather, or by walking to Karbala, which is home to a shrine to Imam Hussain. Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and his band of followers, were massacred in gruesome manner by the armies of the Umayad caliph Yazid in AD680 and his death in Karbala has over time come to symbolise the divide between two major sects of Islam.

Militants linked to Al Qaida, who regard people visiting shrines as heretics, often step up their targeting of Iraq’s majority community during Ashura and the subsequent rituals of Arbaeen when Shia’tes throng the shrine cities in millions to reaffirm their allegiance to the revered Imam.

In past years, pilgrims have been targeted by bombings, including a string of attacks the day before Ashura in 2011 that killed 28 people. As a result, security measures are stepped up with more than 35,000 soldiers and policemen currently deployed to Karbala and surrounding areas, with concentric security perimeters barring vehicles from entering the city while helicopters hover overhead.

Provincial authorities expect two million pilgrims — Iraqis as well as foreigners — will have visited Karbala in the 10 days leading up to Ashura, with all of the city’s hotels fully booked. “I carry these iron weights every year, since I was 16 and until now,” said Shawkat Hussain, a 60-year-old pilgrim visiting Karbala from Pakistan, referring to heavy iron chains hanging around his neck. “What I am carrying does not compare to what Hussain did for his religion.” Agencies

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