Karbala, Iraq: Millions of Shiites flooded the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Sunday for the peak of Ashura rituals, which have been largely spared the deadly attacks that struck visitors in past years.
Throngs of visitors beat their chests and some used swords to make cuts on their heads as a sign of mourning for Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad [PBUH] who was killed in 680AD by the armies of the caliph Yazid.
Imam Hussain’s body is buried in the city, 100km south of Baghdad, and his death has become a formative event for Shiites.
A man told black-clad visitors, many of them in tears, the story of the battle in which the imam was killed, over loudspeakers near the shrine where he is buried.
The faithful later carried out a ritual run to the shrine, striking their heads in mourning and shouting: “We sacrifice for you, O Hussain.”
Karbala provincial governor Amal Al Deen Al Har said that about three million Shiites, including 200,000 from foreign countries, have come to Karbala for the rituals.
Staff Lieutenant General Othman Al Ganimi, commander of Al Furat Al Awsat operations command which covers the Karbala area, said 30,000 security forces personnel were deployed at the northern, southern and eastern entrances of Karbala to protect the visitors.
Lieutenant Colonel Ahmad Mohammad Al Hasnawi, the command’s spokesman, meanwhile said that its forces were also preparing to protect visitors on their way back to their homes.
Visitors are most vulnerable when they are going to and from Karbala, when they are not protected by the heavy security in the city itself.
He said that there will be 2,400 vehicles from various Iraqi ministries and from Karbala province to help transport the faithful home.
There have not been any attacks on visitors in Karbala province so far, Hasnawi said.
Ahmad Fadhel, a 30-year-old from Najaf province, said that both security and services in Karbala were good, but added: “We are ready to participate in this commemoration in spite of any circumstances.”
This is the third year since the 2003 US-led invasion that Iraqi security forces have been in sole charge of security during Ashura.
Visitors were often targeted by bombings in past years that left dozens dead, including a wave of attacks against the faithful the day before the peak of Ashura rituals last year that killed 28 people and wounded 78.
A car bomb against Shiites north of Baghdad on November 17 this year killed three people and wounded 25, but visitors have largely been spared attacks.
Violence in Iraq is down significantly from its peak in 2006-2007, although bombings and shootings remain common, and Iraq’s Shiite majority is frequently targeted by militants opposed to the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
Shiites make up around 15 per cent of Muslims worldwide. They represent the majority populations in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain and form significant communities in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.