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Iraqi pilgrims protest corruption during religious march

Published: Updated:

Thousands of Iraqis chanted anti-corruption slogans during the Shia Arbaeen pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala on Saturday, responding to firebrand cleric Moqtada al-Sadr’s call to keep up anti-government protests.

Amid the throngs of black-clad pilgrims mourning the seventh-century death of Imam Hussein, al-Sadr supporters dressed in white demanded “No, to corruption!” and “Yes, to reform!” Waving Iraqi flags, they chanted “Baghdad free, corrupt ones out!”

Al-Sadr, whose list emerged as the largest bloc in parliamentary elections last year, helped Prime Minister Adil Abdel Mahdi to form his government. But on Tuesday he called on Twitter for his supporters to march in shrouds.

Iraq - the second-largest OPEC oil producer - is “a rich country where the people are poor,” Khedheir Naim told AFP.

The grey-bearded man came from the southern oil city of Basra to join the world’s largest Shia pilgrimage, which culminated on Saturday.

He denounced corrupt leaders, who according to official figures pocketed 410 billion euros over the past 16 years.

“Unfortunately, tyrants and criminals live handsomely at the expense of the people,” Naim said.

Denouncing corruption has been a primary theme of the protest movement shaking Iraq, alongside demands for jobs and functional services.

In a single week of protests at the start of the month, 110 people were killed and 6,000 injured, according to official figures.

Calls have been made for fresh marches on October 25, to mark the anniversary of the government that is the focus of public anger.

The annual Arbaeen pilgrimage sees millions of worshippers, mostly Iraqis and Iranians, converge by foot on Karbala, 60 miles south of Baghdad.

Placards with anti-US and anti-Israel messages are often seen in the crowd, though anti-corruption slogans are rare.

Despite warnings from Iranian authorities for pilgrims to delay traveling, 3.5 million people - mostly Iranians - officially entered Iraq by land borders by Friday.