KARBALA, Iraq (Dispatches) — Millions of pilgrims made their way on foot to the Iraqi city of Karbala on Saturday for the pilgrimage of Arba’een, regarded as the largest annual public gathering in the world.
The commemoration marks the 40th day following the martyrdom of Imam Hussein (AS) in the 7th century and included 3 million Iranians and other pilgrims from abroad. Police and popular forces patrolled roads leading into the city and escorted Iranian pilgrims from the border, hiking up security for processions that have previously been targeted by Takfiri terrorist groups with bloody bombings.
Pilgrims streamed toward Karbala on foot from the cities of Najaf, 70 kilometers (45 miles) away, Baghdad, 90 kilometers (55 miles) to the north, and other places farther afield, resting along the way in tents lined with foam mattresses and fleece blankets.
The pilgrimage, known in Arabic as the Ziara, marks the anniversary of the 40th day of mourning following the 7th century martyrdom of the Prophet Muhammad’s grandson at the hands of the Umayyad forces in the Battle of Karbala, during the tumultuous first century of Islam’s history.
Imam Hussein (AS) was martyred after refusing to pledge allegiance to the Umayyad caliphate.
In recent years, the Iraqi government says Karbala received 10-20 million visitors during the event. For many Muslims who cannot afford to go on the Hajj or cannot get the Saudi visa, the Ziara is a satisfying alternative.
In neighboring Iran, Arbaeen is a national holiday. Tens of thousands in Tehran marched toward a nearby town south of the capital to mourn at the shrine of Shah Abdul Azim, a fifth generation descendent of Imam Hassan (AS).
Iran’s deputy interior minister Hussein Zolfaghari said that more than 3.4 million Iranians traveled to Iraq and 2 million of them have returned.
In Tehran, 3,000 university students mourned Arba'een at the University of Tehran before walking on foot toward Imam Khomeini Hussaniya to meet Leader of the Islamic Revolution Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei and join him in mourning the day.
In a brief address to the meeting, the Leader warned that the global arrogance and hegemonic powers are using their numerous propaganda machines to portray evil as good and good as evil.
Iran’s First Vice President Es’haq Jahangiri, who had travelled to Iraq to attend the processions, med Najaf Governor Luay al-Yasiri and thanked Iraqi authorities for hosting Iranian pilgrims.
"It is a difficult task to host such a number of pilgrims given some shortcomings which exist in the infrastructure, and the Iranian government and people thank the Iraqi government and nation for this hospitality,” he said.
Yasiri said Arba’een plays a key role in further cementing ties between the two countries and other nations.
Imam Hussein (AS) is a highly-venerated figure remembered not only among Shia Muslims but also among Sunnis and people of other faiths.
The number of participants in Arba’een processions has been on the rise, with tens of thousands also making the long visit to Karbala from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Lebanon Kuwait and Bahrain.
On Tuesday, prominent Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on his followers to take part in Saturday processions to denounce the United States and the occupying regime of Israel.
The message against the backdrop of a few tense days of anti-corruption protests across Iraq earlier this month.
Certain Arab media outlets have reported that a U.S.-backed plan sought to provoke the protests in a bid to spark instability in the country.
Observers believe the timing of the provocations demonstrated that foreign-backed elements were seeking to undermine the Arba’een processions, specifically by fueling antagonism towards Iran.
The protests, however, have largely receded since last week.
On Saturday, images from Araba’een processions showed Iraqi pilgrims chanting "No to America, no to Israel, no to corruption” and "Baghdad is free, corruption must go!”