Shias head to Iraq's Karbala under militant threat

Shias head to Iraq's Karbala under militant threat
Ashura pilgrims face the threat of bomb attacks by Islamic State and its affiliated groups.
3 min read
02 November, 2014
Ashura is a period of mourning for Shias (AFP/Getty)
Hundreds of thousands of Shia Muslims will flock to Iraq's city of Karbala this week, despite threats from armed jihadi groups who consider them heretics.

Pilgrims are making the trip to the shrine of Karbala to commemorate Ashura, which marks the death of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered figures in Shia Islam. 

While Ashura pilgrims have previously been targeted by deadly bombings,
 this year, the threat is even greater after the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as ISIS) spearheaded a sweeping offensive that overran much of Iraq's Sunni Arab heartland.

"The level of danger is higher than past years. Before there was terrorism, but it did not reach this level," a police colonel said on condition of anonymity.

The pilgrimage is a major test for the new government headed by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi, as well as for Iraq's security forces, who have struggled to push the militants back.

A major attack during the commemorations in Karbala, where Imam Hussein is buried, would increase already-significant tensions between Iraq's Shia majority and Sunni Arab minority, and could spark revenge attacks.

The 2006 bombing of a revered Shia shrine in Samarra, north of Baghdad, sparked waves of sectarian violence in which tens of thousands died, though an attack on a shrine during the pilgrimage would be unlikely to succeed.

"There was danger," said an army brigadier general, also speaking on condition of anonymity, "but it is now greater than before. The threat is bigger."

A suicide bomber detonated a truck rigged with explosives on Saturday at the main checkpoint through which pilgrims pass on their way from Baghdad to Karbala, killing more than 20 people.

A car bomb also exploded near a tent serving refreshments to pilgrims in the capital, killing at least 10 more.

Major security developments

Iraq will deploy thousands of security personnel as well as allied militiamen to guard against further attacks.

Among the most dangerous areas for pilgrims is the jihadi-held territory south of Baghdad, along the road pilgrims travel to Karbala.

Commemorations will reach their peak on Tuesday.

Security forces and militiamen have launched a major push to retake the Jurf al-Sakhr area near the Baghdad-Karbala road.

Jurf al-Sakhr was used by armed groups to rig cars with explosives to target Karbala and Hilla during previous years' pilgrimages, said Staff Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanimi.

"Its liberation helps us carry out the security plan" for Muharram, the second holiest month in the Islamic calendar during which Ashura is marked.

"Clearing Jurf al-Sakhr... provides extra protection for the pilgrims," the police colonel said.

But while Jurf al-Sakhr has been retaken, the conflict has taken a heavy toll on the area, with residents forced from their homes, numerous houses destroyed and many buildings and roads still rigged with bombs.

Ghanimi said the security plan involves "more than 25,000 personnel from the army and police, in addition to 1,500 volunteers" - a reference to members of Shia militias.

These forces will be deployed on the road from Baghdad to Karbala and inside the shrine city itself.

Within the capital, plainclothes members of the security forces will be on the lookout for suicide bombers as people march to mark Ashura, and the numbers of forces deployed will be "much higher" than last year, the colonel said.

But attacks, especially by bombers on foot, are "difficult to control", the colonel said, adding that the threat cannot be entirely eliminated whatever measures may be taken.