Millions of black-clad Shia Muslims, crying and beating their chests in mourning, streamed through a shrine in the Iraqi city of Karbala Monday under heavy protection from the security forces. The processions of faithful walking to Imam Hussein's mausoleum from all over Iraq have been routinely targeted by bombings over the years, but this time the Arbaeen commemoration saw very few attacks.
The Islamic State group is battling tens of thousands of Iraqi forces in and around its last major stronghold of Mosul, and observers had feared it might seek to strike Baghdad or Karbala during Arbaeen. The authorities in Karbala, which lies about 80 kilometres south of Baghdad, said at least 24,000 soldiers and police were securing the area.
Some pilgrims came from as far afield as Basra, Iraq's main southern port city some 500 kilometres away by road.[caption id="attachment_35391" align="aligncenter" width="800"] Shia Muslim pilgrims flagellate themselves during the mouring procession on November 19, 2016, in the central Iraqi city of Karbala. AFP[/caption]
Umm Ali came without her husband, who is with the security forces on the front lines. "I came with my son and two daughters. I came from Samawa to Najaf by car, then from Najaf to Karbala on foot, to make a plea for my husband's safety," the 45-year-old said. "We ask God to support us against Daesh (IS) members, to help us liberate Mosul and urge our politicians to remember the people who have sacrificed so much," she said.
Shoutout to the Lebs ??? #Arbaeen #Karbala pic.twitter.com/0tgKuxm8I4 — Moosa (@Moosa__IRQ) November 20, 2016
The article quoted a spokesman from the UN's health agency, which denied any such comment was ever made. It drew condemnation from Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and several other leading Shia figures and bodies demanding an apology.
It kept Saudi-Iranian tension as a backdrop to the pilgrimage, after the deadly 2015 stampede during the hajj pilgrimage to Macca prompted Tehran to angrily question Saudi custodianship of holy Muslim sites.
"I want to respond to what was published in Asharq al-Awsat. They want to slander the pilgrims and this event," said Magdi al-Muslim, a Shia who is himself from Saudi Arabia. "Our message to them is that we have Imam Hussein and we won't leave him," he said.
One of world's largest gatherings taking place in #Iraq as millions of pilgrims march from #Najaf to #Karbala for #Arbaeen#اربعین_حسینی pic.twitter.com/76kqajkp2Z — Ali (@Maarkhor) November 19, 2016
Sayyeda Zeinab to Yazid: "You will not erase our memory" World's biggest peaceful gathering #Karbala #Arbaeen2016 pic.twitter.com/oR8HXWm6sP — Rana H. (@RanaHarbi) November 21, 2016