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Shiite pilgrims flock to Iraq shrine city

by Mehdi Lebouachera and Hassan Abdul Zahra*

Amid tight security, millions of Shiite pilgrims flocked yesterday to the Iraqi shrine city of Karbala for Arbaeen, one of the holiest ceremonies in the Shiite calendar which was largely suppressed during the iron-fisted rule of Saddam Hussein.
Millions more are expected to visit Karbala by the time the event culminates today.
"Under Saddam, those who went to Karbala were killed or had their legs shot so they could not walk again," said Hussein Hamad, 74, one of the pilgrims in the giant procession snaking towards the city.
"Today love for Imam Hussein guides our steps. Never again will we be prevented from praying in Karbala."
Arbaeen marks the 40th day after the seventh century slaying in Karbala of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures of the Shiite faith.
Shiite pilgrims began flocking back to Karbala for their annual ceremonies soon after the overthrow of Saddam in 2003, but a string of attacks kept many away.
Today pilgrims must go through a series of checkpoints that include metal detectors and a full-body frisk before they can enter the city. Vehicle traffic is banned.
Some 50,000 Iraqi police and soldiers have been deployed in the area in a bid to prevent insurgent attacks.
At a tent rest stop in Hilla, on the road to Karbala, a group of pilgrims gathered for food and some warm tea. They included children as well as adults of all ages and even a few pilgrims in wheelchairs.
"Every year since the fall of the old regime we've been reluctant to walk to Karbala," said Um Aya, a young woman who sheltered her infant child from the dawn chill under her long black abaya cloak.
"But this year, we are determined to do it," she said with a tired look in her eyes.
Um Aya had left her home town of Diwaniyah in central Iraq on foot four days earlier and still not reached Karbala.
It was in a similar rest tent in the town of Iskandiriyah, on the road from Baghdad to Karbala, that a suicide bomber struck on Sunday, killing 48 pilgrims and wounding 68.
"There are bomb attacks, that is true, but visiting Karbala is a duty for us Shiites," said Um Aya. "We have no fear of attacks. Our march is a jihad (holy struggle)."
Her voice was almost drowned out by chants from the faithful praising Imam Mahdi, the Hidden Imam who Shiites believe will return to establish a peaceful and just society on earth.
"Oh, our Mahdi, return to witness the ill that has befallen us!" the crowd chanted in unison, beating their chests with crossed arms.
In Karbala, vast throngs of pilgrims poured into the city heading towards the mausoleums of Hussein and his brother Abbas in the centre.
Local residents opened their doors to welcome the pilgrims.
"I have opened mine and my brother's house to receive the visitors. We feel honoured to provide services," said Abu Muhammed Hussein al-Karbalai.
Karbala police chief Raid Shakir Jawdat said late on Tuesday that six million Iraqis plus around 80,000 foreign pilgrims had visited the shrine city in past few days.
Naim Obaiss, a 47 year-old engineer, had walked from his home town more than 200 kilometres (125 miles) away with his friend Ahmed with only sandals on his feet.
Imam Hussein "suffered a lot" before his martyrdom in 680, Obaiss said. "We should suffer like him. The attacks? You know, one day or another death will strike us all."