KARBALA: An estimated 14 million pilgrims thronged Karbala on Friday to mark the annual Arbaeen commemoration, as Baghdad looks to wipe out the militant Islamic State group that has targeted their branch of Islam.
Under tight security, around 14 million worshippers crowded into the golden-domed mausoleum, beating their chests in unison against a background of religious music.Tens of thousands of security personnel and Shia militiamen were deployed, as in past years, around the perimetres of the sanctuary as well as on all roads leading to Karbala, about 80 kilometres southwest of Baghdad.
The expulsion of IS from Iraqi cities has added an extra dimension to this year’s pilgrimage, as the Sunni extremist group has repeatedly targeted Shias. Last year, a suicide bombing killed at least 70 mainly Iranian worshippers returning from the commemoration.
The jihadists have seen their self-styled “caliphate” disintegrate on the battlefield, and are currently fighting to hold a last pocket of territory in Iraq on the Syrian border.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said the security operation to protect the millions of pilgrims was a “success” and “another victory” for Iraqi forces who have routed IS from most of the country.
Believers from across the Middle East and beyond made the pilgrimage to Karbala. Shias make up some 60 per cent of Iraq’s population.
Ahead of the peak of the commemorations local governor Aqil Tourihi said that over 10 million Iraqis had arrived.
More than two million Iranian pilgrims also crossed the border into Iraq for Arbaeen, an Iranian official said.
The overall attendance of around 14 million appeared down on the roughly 17 to 20 million people estimated to have attended Arbaeen in 2016.
“There are pilgrims coming from Arab countries, from Turkey, from the US, the Gulf, from everywhere in the world, and this is the proof that Muslims all over the world are united,” said Shia al-Mussawi, a pilgrim visiting from Iraq’s Misan province.