KARBALA, (AFP) – Hundreds of thousands of Shiites descended on the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala on Wednesday ahead of the climax of Ashura ceremonies, surrounded by heavy security for fear of attack.
Among them, dozens of pilgrims chanted anti-graft songs in an Ashura tradition whereby they vent their anger over current issues.
Black flags, symbolising the sadness of Shiites during the rituals, were visible across the city alongside pictures of the revered imams Hussein and Abbas, both of whom are buried in Karbala.
In a show of piety, tens of thousands of faithful were completing on foot the 100 kilometre (60 mile) journey from the capital Baghdad.
Violence targeting pilgrims has claimed the lives of 17 people in the past few days. Authorities said some 28,000 soldiers and police were securing Karbala, with a further 7,000 on stand-by.
By the climax on Friday, some two million followers are expected to be in the city, including around 100,000 foreigners.
“I challenge the terrorists who do not want the ceremonies to continue … I don’t know how they consider themselves Muslims,” said Hussein Kadhim, a pilgrim from the outskirts of Karbala.
“We will continue with our ceremonies even if they attack us, even if they kill us.”
Provincial authorities deployed dozens of mobile medical units across the city and were also testing the quality of water and food being handed out.
Private vehicles were banned from entering Karbala and all pilgrims were searched.
Six security perimeters have been established around the city, with a particular focus on entrances to Karbala and its old city, close to Imam Hussein’s shrine.
This year’s Ashura commemorations mark a key security test for Iraq’s security forces, with around one year to go before the some 50,000 US forces left in the country are set to withdraw completely.
In previous years, Ashura has been a target for Sunni Arab extremists, who see the 10-day ceremonies as symbolically highlighting the split between Islam’s two main communities.
Most recently, a roadside bomb in the middle of a Baghdad procession killed 10 Shiite worshippers on Tuesday. Seventeen pilgrims have been killed since the beginning of the rituals on December 8.
The deadliest Ashura attacks were in March 2004, when near-simultaneous bombings at a Shiite mosque in Baghdad and in Karbala killed more than 170 people.
The rituals commemorate the killing of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, by armies of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD. Tradition holds that he was decapitated and his body mutilated.
Ceremonies begin with devotees drenched in blood after ritually slicing their scalps and flaying themselves with chains attached to sticks, symbolically showing their guilt and remorse for not defending Hussein.
Dozens of pilgrims recited poems written by procession leaders bemoaning rampant corruption.
“Tell us how many thieves have been presented to the integrity commission,” one group chanted, referring to Iraq’s anti-corruption agency, the Public Integrity Commission, which was created in 2004.
“We swear by your name, O Hussein, that we are not afraid to speak, to express ourselves, to publicly denounce these wolves!”
Transparency International rated Iraq the fourth-most corrupt of 178 countries surveyed for its 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index. It ranked ahead of only Afghanistan, Myanmar and Somalia.
“We are now allowed to recite these poems once again, after the fall of the former regime,” said Hamid Meeri, one of the men chanting. “But the problem now is, the officials do not listen to us.”
Now-executed dictator Saddam Hussein barred the vast majority of Ashura commemorations throughout his rule until his overthrow in 2003.
While thousands visit Karbala and other major Shiite shrines in Samarra, Najaf and Baghdad every day, the number peaks during Ashura.
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.