KARBALA, Iraq: Millions of Shiites flooded the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Sunday for the peak of Ashura rituals, which have been largely spared the attacks that struck pilgrims in past years.
A bomb wounded 10 pilgrims in Diyala province, north of Baghdad, but it was the first such attack since a car bomb against pilgrims killed three people on November 17.
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 Muslim 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 is buried in the holy city, 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, and his death was a formative event in Shiite Islam.
Black-clad pilgrims, some of them in tears, listened over loudspeakers to the story of the battle in which Hussein was killed, and 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 Hussein, officially wrapped up by 3:00 pm (1200 GMT), according to an AFP journalist.
Mohammed Khaled, a 37-year-old pilgrim dressed in a black robe who came to Karbala from Baghdad, said Ashura is a chance for people to “express their love of and adherence to the principles of Imam Hussein.”
“It also reminds us of the importance of adhering to (what is) right and rejecting falsehood,” he said.
Karbala provincial Governor Amal al-Din al-Har told AFP that about three million pilgrims, including 200,000 foreigners, 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 that 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, 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.
Governor Har said 2,400 vehicles from various ministries and from Karbala province would help transport pilgrims home.
Ahmed Fadhel, a 30-year-old pilgrim from Najaf province, said both security and services in Karbala were good, but added: “We are ready to participate in this commemoration in spite of any circumstances.”
This is the third year since the 2003 US-led invasion that Iraqi security forces have been in sole charge of security during Ashura.
In the past, pilgrims were often targeted by bombings that killed dozens, including a wave of attacks against pilgrims the day before the peak of Ashura rituals last year that killed 28 people and wounded 78.
And while there were two attacks against pilgrims this year, the violence was much lower than before.
A roadside bomb wounded 10 pilgrims east of Baquba in Diyala province on Sunday, police and a doctor said, while a car bomb targeted pilgrims north of Baghdad on November 17, killing three people and wounding 25.
Attacks also hit Ashura commemorations elsewhere in the Muslim world.
In Pakistan, a bomb attack on a Shiite procession killed five people and wounded more than 80 on Sunday, while a similar attack the day before left eight people dead, and a suicide bombing earlier in the week killed 23 people.
And in Yemen, gunmen shot dead three Shiites and wounded 10 on Saturday.
Shiites make up around 15 percent of Muslims worldwide. They represent the majority populations in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain and form significant communities in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.