Millions in Iraq commemorate Arbaeen

February 17, 2009

KARBALA, Iraq (AFP) – Millions of Shiite pilgrims mourned Imam Hussein under tight security in the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Monday.

Under the gaze of rooftop snipers, crowds of mourners chanting “Ya, Hussein” passed through the mausoleums of Imam Hussein and his half-brother Abbas for the Arbaeen (40 days) ceremony.
They punched the air and their chests with their fists, while others brandished green and black flags.
But in the latest attacks to hit Iraq, eight people including four pilgrims returning to Baghdad, were killed in two roadside bombings that ripped through minibuses in the capital, medical and police sources said.
Karbala officials said millions of Shiites have passed through the city over the past week, many of them having traveled long distances on foot to mark the end of the 40-day mourning period.
But the pilgrimage, which under dictator Saddam’s regime was kept low-key, has been blighted by a string of deadly bombings.
At least 50 people have now been killed in attacks since Wednesday targeting the worshippers, including eight pilgrims who died in a bombing near the Imam Hussein shrine itself.
Karbala province's police chief Ali Jassem Mohammed said 30,000 police and soldiers, including plainclothes officers and snipers, were deployed, with security cameras installed at key junctions around shrines and along the roads.
About 1,500 policewomen were tasked with searching female pilgrims.
Arbaeen marks 40 days after the Ashura anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein by Yazid's armies in AD 680.
Karbala governor Akeel al-Khazali has estimated that more than 10 million people have passed through the city for the solemn ceremony, including 150,000 Shiites from abroad.
It was impossible to confirm the massive turnout figure which would make it five times bigger than the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.
By the final day, three-quarters of the pilgrims had already made their way home, Khazali said. Many of them have been sleeping in tents or even on the roadside, either in the city of 600,000 residents or outside.
He appealed for motorists to help the returning pilgrims and to descend on the city to drive them home.
On Friday, 35 people, mostly women and children, were killed when a female suicide bomber blew herself up in a rest-stop refreshment tent set up in the town of Iskandiriyah, south of Baghdad on the road to Karbala.
The bomber was dressed in an abaya, the traditional Muslim head-to-toe black garment, allowing her to conceal her explosives.
Interior ministry spokesman Abdul Karim Khalaf said that attack and another that killed eight Shiite worshippers and wounded more than 50 near the shrine on Thursday bore “the imprint of Al-Qaeda.”
A blast near the same shrine 11 months ago killed 43 people.
Shiite pilgrims heading to Karbala for Arbaeen have been targeted and killed by extremists groups in previous years, adding to sectarian bloodshed that has seen tens of thousands die since the U.S.-led invasion of March 2003.
In Saddam's era, relatively small crowds of no more than a few thousand would mark the event in silence in Karbala, under the scrutiny of police commandos, and marches to the city were banned.