Violent clashes mar Shia pilgrimage in Iraq

This year, there have been fewer pilgrims as Iraq has mostly closed its borders to foreign pilgrims over fears of a bigger spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wednesday 07/10/2020
Shia pilgrims arrive at Karbala, Iraq, for the Arbaeen ritual, October 6. (AP)
Shia pilgrims arrive at Karbala, Iraq, for the Arbaeen ritual, October 6. (AP)

BAGHDAD – Iraqi protesters clashed Tuesday with security forces outside a holy Shia Muslim shrine in the southern city of Kerbala, causing injuries to several people.

At least 50 people were wounded in the altercations, two Iraqi security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Among the wounded were 30 demonstrators and less than a dozen pilgrims, including women. Some of the militiamen guarding the shrines were also wounded.

The protesters were commemorating demonstrators killed during months of anti-government unrest last year in which more than 500 Iraqis died, most of them gunned down by security forces and militias.

Tuesday’s clashes took place near the Imam Hussein shrine during the annual Arbaeen pilgrimage to commemorate the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson.

The protesters had marched towards the shrine, witnesses said. Some became angry because they were not allowed into the shrine concourse. Security forces then charged the protesters with batons, causing skirmishes and pushing them back.

A Kerbala security official said the protesters had arrived as part of a pilgrimage group, but before the time allotted for them to tour the shrine. Part of the group grew violent and police acted to eject them from the area, the official said.

New protests kicked off October 1 in Baghdad to mark one year since mass anti-government protests engulfed the capital and the predominately Shia south.

A year ago, tens of thousands of Iraqi youth marched to decry rampant corruption and demanded early elections, better services and jobs. Over 500 people, mostly protesters, died by gunfire from Iraqi security forces who used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds.

Protesters have given the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi until October 25 to initiate reforms and meet their demands. The incident in Karbala indicates mounting tensions as the deadline approaches.

The Arbaeen pilgrimage is the world’s largest public annual gathering and normally attracts millions of Muslims from Iraq and abroad.

This year there have been fewer pilgrims because Iraq has mostly closed its borders to foreign pilgrims over fears of a bigger spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Iraq is already recording up to 5,000 new cases a day.