KARBALA: Millions of Shiites flooded the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Sunday for the peak of Ashura rituals, which have been largely spared the deadly attacks that struck pilgrims in past years.
Throngs of pilgrims beat their chests and some used swords to make cuts on their heads as a sign of mourning for Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in 680 AD by the armies of the caliph Yazid.
Tradition holds that the revered imam was decapitated and his body mutilated. Hussein’s body is buried in the holy city, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, and his death has become a formative event in Shiite Islam.
A man told black-clad pilgrims, many of them in tears, the story of the battle in which Hussein was killed, over loudspeakers near the shrine where he is buried.
Pilgrims later carried out a ritual run to the shrine, striking their heads in mourning and shouting: “We sacrifice for you, O Hussein.”
The commemorations, which also included a reenactment of the attack that killed Imam Hussein, officially wrapped up by 3:00 pm (1200 GMT), according to an AFP journalist.
Karbala provincial governor Amal al-Din al-Har told AFP that about three million pilgrims, including 200,000 from foreign countries, travelled to Karbala for the rituals.
The number of foreign pilgrims was down considerably from the 650,000 who were said to have attended last year.
Staff Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanimi, head of Al-Furat al-Awsat operations command which covers Karbala, said 30,000 security forces personnel were deployed at the northern, southern and eastern entrances of the city to protect the pilgrims.
Lieutenant Colonel Ahmed Mohammed al-Hasnawi, the command’s spokesman, meanwhile said its forces were also preparing to protect pilgrims on their way back to their homes.
There have not been any attacks on pilgrims in Karbala province so far, Hasnawi said.
Pilgrims are most vulnerable when they are going to and from Karbala, when they are not protected by the heavy security in the city itself.
Karbala governor Har said that there would be 2,400 vehicles from various Iraqi ministries and from Karbala province to help transport pilgrims home.