Shiite pilgrims flock to Iraq holy city, government fears attack

Iraqi Prime Minister says Islamic State of Iraq and Syria militant group targeting event

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From across Iraq and neighboring states, millions of Shi’ite pilgrims are heading this week to the city of Karbala for a religious ceremony that authorities say radical Sunni fighters are targeting for attack.

Already hundreds of thousands of Shiite faithful, many from adjacent Iran, have visited Karbala for rituals which culminate in Saturday’s Arbain holy day -- the last of 40 days’ mourning for the death in battle of Imam Hussein 13 centuries ago.

Roads and highways across Iraq have been filled with black-clad pilgrims heading on foot to Karbala, a journey which can take days, carrying banners bearing Hussein’s image.

Arbain, a defining ritual of Shiite Islam and its rift with Sunnism, has frequently triggered militant attacks. This year it unfolds for the first time since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Sunni Muslim fighters seized control of much of north and west Iraq.

“We have information that they will try to infiltrate crowds of pilgrims and kill civilians everywhere,” Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this week during a visit to Karbala, about 80 kilometers south-west of Baghdad.

Abadi said security forces would thwart any attempt to disrupt Arbain, but they face a double challenge.

Not only are many troops diverted to tackle ISIS fighters elsewhere -- forcing authorities to rely more heavily on Shiite militia to keep order-- but this year’s flood of foreign visitors has been swollen by Iraq’s decision to ease visa requirements for Arbain pilgrims.

An immigration official said visa fees, which normally cost $40, had been waived entirely and video from the Shalamja border crossing with Iran, 15 kilometers east of Basra, has shown thousands of people pouring across as the gates open every day.

Speaking on Tuesday, a senior border official said 200,000 Iranians had already crossed, initially overwhelming his staff.

“This is the first time in the history of this border crossing that we’ve had such intensity,” said Shalamja frontier director Major General Saddam Abdul Sahib.

He said the last comparable surge came after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion which toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, who fought an eight-year war with Iran and banned major Arbain commemorations. Around 100,000 crossed at that time.

Karbala deputy governor Jassim Abid said 2 million foreigners had already reached Karbala, mainly Iranians, and millions more had come from inside Iraq, where the majority of people are Shiites.

Alwiya Najat, an Iranian pilgrim in Karbala, said she only decided to come when she heard of the “miracle” of the visa fee being waived. “I just gathered my family and got our clothes. We hadn’t prepared but we just came,” she said.

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