Shiites from around Iraq and the world flooded the shrine city of Karbala on Tuesday for the peak of annual Arbaeen mourning rituals amid tight security after attacks killed dozens.
The central Iraq city saw millions of visitors over the 40-day period of mourning that follows the annual commemoration of the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein, who was slain by the forces of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD.
Karbala provincial council chief Nusaif al-Khatabi told AFP that 20 million people from some 40 countries made pilgrimages to Karbala this year, among them about one million Arabs and foreigners.
Last year around 18 million people made pilgrimages to Karbala, where Hussein is buried.
Army Staff Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanimi said that 38,000 security forces members deployed to protect the faithful during the final 15 days of the pilgrimage.
But despite the security measures, militants were able to repeatedly strike pilgrims, many of whom make their way to Karbala on foot.
In some of the deadliest attacks, two car bombs south of Baghdad killed 24 people on December 16, while three suicide bombers attacked pilgrims three days later, leaving 36 people dead.
Sunni militants in Iraq including those linked to Al-Qaeda frequently target Shiites, whom they consider to be apostates.
“We challenged terrorism and we hope to die in the path of Hussein,” said Jassem Jabr, 40, who spent 12 days walking to Karbala from south Iraq.
“If only the politicians would learn from the revolution of Hussein, who revolted against injustice and corruption,” Jabr said.
More than 10 years after US-led forces toppled dictator Saddam Hussein, Iraq remains plagued by woefully lacking security, poor services, corruption and political deadlock.
Violence in the country surged this year to levels not seen since 2008, when Iraq was just emerging from a brutal period of sectarian killings.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 6,650 people have been killed and over 16,000 wounded in violence, according to AFP figures based on security and medical sources.