KARBALA, Iraq (AFP) – More than three million Shiites marked a revered annual pilgrimage to the Iraqi holy city of Karbala amid tight security to thwart attacks, officials said on Sunday.
Shiite worshippers from across the Muslim world had converged on Karbala over the past week to celebrate Shabaniyah, the birth anniversary of the eighth century Imam Mahdi, who vanished as a boy and whom Shiites believe will return one day as the messiah.
The celebrations culminated overnight on Saturday with more than three million Shiites having visited the holy city over the past week, Akhil Khazali, the governor of Karbala, told AFP.
“All the government offices and services were on alert during the ceremony,” Khazali said.
Iraqi Shiites braved sustained militant attacks which claimed at least 36 lives since Thursday as they walked on foot from across the country to Karbala for the ceremony.
Karbala police chief Major General Raed Shakir Jawdat said the security plan put in place for the celebration was successful.
“The security plan required thousands of security personnel, including more than 2,000 women police workers,” he said.
More than 40,000 soldiers and police had been mobilised, including the 2,000 female security workers, to boost security in and around Karbala ahead of the festival.
Jawdat said the security measures would continue until all the pilgrims have left the central Iraqi city.
“The pilgrims were aware that these measures were for their safety and to protect them from terrorist attacks,” Jawdat added.
Shiite pilgrim Ehsaan al-Asadi from the southern city of Nasiriyah also praised the security operation.
“This was the most successful ceremony since the fall of the (Saddam Hussein) regime because we did not face any problems as we marched for seven days to reach Karbala,” Asadi told AFP.
“The security measures were in our interest as several pilgrims were attacked while on their way to Karbala from Baghdad.”
Mohammed Abdallah, a Shiite from the northern town of Tal Afar, said he was not scared to attend the annual ritual. “I had no fear. This year the pilgrimage was successful,” he said.
Shiite festivals in Iraq have been regularly attacked by Sunni extremists.
On Saturday, at least six people were killed in a car bombing in Baghdad targeting the Shiite pilgrims heading to Karbala.
The attack was the latest in a wave of bombings since Thursday that have left at least 36 people, most of them pilgrims, despite the massive security operation.
The worst attack against the pilgrims took place on Thursday when two women suicide bombers detonated their explosives-packed vests in Iskandariyah, south of Baghdad.
Those blasts killed 22 people and wounded at least 73, most of them young men but also including women and children.