KARBALA, Iraq (AFP) – Millions of Shiites across Iraq on Sunday joined ceremonies marking the climax of solemn Ashura rituals, marred by a bomb attack on a procession near Kirkuk that killed four people.
Around three million people thronged the streets of the shrine city of Karbala in central Iraq for the main rituals commemorating the slaying of the revered Imam Hussein by the armies of the Sunni caliph Yazid in 680, according to provincial deputy governor Nasaeef Jassim.
“Pilgrims have gathered in the streets of the Old City of Karbala to prepare for the final part of the ceremonies,” said Jassim, adding that among the three million pilgrims were some 105,000 worshippers from foreign countries, mostly from the Gulf but also including Pakistan, Canada and Tanzania.
He added that a total of six million people had passed through Karbala city during the 10-day Ashura rituals, the holiest days of the Islamic year for Shiites.
Karbala police chief General Ali Jassim Mohammed had earlier in the week announced the deployment of around 25,000 policemen and soldiers to secure the commemoration ceremonies.
Violence elsewhere in the country, however, took the gloss off the largely peaceful Karbala pilgrimage, which in recent years has been attacked by Sunni insurgents and disrupted by intra-Shiite fighting.
Police said that early on Sunday a bomb ripped through a procession marking Ashura in the northern town of Taza Kharmatu, near oil-rich Kirkuk, killing four people and wounding 19.
The Taza Kharmatu attack came a day after three Shiites were killed when bombs struck separate Ashura processions in Baghdad.
Since Tuesday, 32 people have been killed and more than 160 wounded in violence targeting Ashura, including attacks on worshippers in Karbala and Baghdad earlier in the week.
Karbala, about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, was peaceful on Sunday.
“Despite a serious threat from armed groups to target visitors, the security plan has worked,” said National Security Minister Shirwan al-Waili, who was visiting Karbala along with Interior Minister Jawad al-Bolani.
Ceremonies began with thousands of devotees drenched in blood after ritually slicing their scalps and were to end with a re-enactment of the battle for Karbala in 680 in which Imam Hussein was killed.
Tradition holds that the revered imam was decapitated and his body mutilated.
To show their guilt and remorse for not defending Hussein, Shiites cut their scalps and flay themselves with chains attached to sticks during processions.
Sad songs were being played on loudspeakers throughout the city and mostly black flags were on display, along with pictures of Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas, both of whom are buried in the city.
Masses of black-clad pilgrims were gathered some five kilometres (three miles) from the shrine as they prepared for a ritual run to the site, while hitting their heads with their hands and screaming “Labeikeh Hussein” (We are your followers, Hussein).
They were to set fire to tents set up in the city to re-enact the scene of the final battle between Hussein and Yazid’s armies.
During Ashura in March 2004, near-simultaneous bombings at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad and in Karbala killed more than 170 people.
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.