Thousands of pilgrims descend on Iraq’s Karbala

Hundreds of thousands of Shiites visit holy shrine for Ashura


Hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims descended on the holy shrine city of Karbala on Saturday for the climax of Ashura commemorations, despite fears of violent attacks by Sunni extremists.

Security forces have beefed up their presence in the central city and authorities are also checking on the 60,000-odd foreign worshippers also expected to attend the ceremonies to ensure they do not have swine flu.

Black flags, representing the sadness of Shiites during Ashura, were to be seen all over the city, 110 kilometers (70 miles) south of Baghdad, along with pictures of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, who are both buried there.

"I came to show my belief in Imam Hussein -- this event has nothing to do with personal motivations or politics," said 40-year-old Mohammed Abdul Hussein, who came from neighboring Babil province.

Karbala police chief General Ali Jassim Mohammed said that around 25,000 policemen and soldiers had been deployed to secure the commemoration ceremonies, which climax on Saturday and Sunday, and mark the death of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, in 680 AD.

Security perimeters have also been formed throughout the city, while helicopters are providing extra surveillance and bomb-sniffing dogs are being used at checkpoints.

To counter women suicide attackers who have struck Karbala before, security forces have deployed 600 female personnel on three roads into the city.

During Ashura in March 2004, near-simultaneous bombings at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad and in Karbala killed more than 170 people.

Authorities are also concerned about the spread of swine flu from foreign worshippers, the majority of whom are arriving from Iran, Pakistan and Arab Gulf countries.

"We expect more than 60,000 foreign pilgrims to come, and we have ordered them to visit health centers to be sure they do not have any diseases," said provincial governor Amal Adin al-Her.

He estimates that around one million pilgrims will visit Karbala on Saturday and Sunday.

Ashura, which means tenth in Arabic, falls on the 10th day of the Muslim month of Muharram.

Tradition holds that Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, was decapitated and his body mutilated by the armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid.

To express remorse and guilt for not saving Hussein, some Shiite volunteers flay themselves with chains or slice their scalps during processions to the Karbala shrines.

We expect more than 60,000 foreign pilgrims to come, and we have ordered them to visit health centers to be sure they do not have any diseases

Amal Adin al-Her