Attacks against Shias, including a suicide bombing that ripped through a religious procession, martyred 39 people in Iraq Thursday despite massive security deployed for one of the holiest days of Ashura.
The bloodshed came as a flood of worshippers, including tens of thousands of foreign pilgrims, thronged the central shrine city of Karbala for the climax of Ashura, braving the repeated attacks by Safli-Takfiri militants that have marred the occasion in previous years.
The suicide bomber struck in a Shia-majority area of confessionally mixed Diyala province, north of Baghdad, killing 30 people and wounding 65, security and medical officials said. It was the third attack of the day to target Shias.
Earlier, coordinated blasts in the town of Hafriyah, south of the capital, killed nine people, while twin bombings in the northern oil city of Kirkuk wounded five.
Shias from Iraq and around the world mark Ashura, which this year climaxed on Thursday, by setting up procession tents where pilgrims gather and food is distributed to passers-by.
An estimated Six million faithful gathered in Karbala, site of the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, whose death in the city at the hands of soldiers of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD lies.
To mark the occasion, modern-day Shia devotees flood Hussein’s mausoleum, demonstrating their ritual guilt and remorse for not defending him by beating their heads and chests and, in some cases, making incisions on their scalps with swords in ritual acts of self-flagellation.
Black-clad pilgrims packed the shrines of Hussein and his half-brother Abbas, listening over loudspeakers to the story of the battle in which Hussein was killed as volunteers distributed food and water.
â€œI have been coming since I was young, every year, even during the time of the tyrant Saddam,â€ said Abu Ali,a 35-year-old pilgrim visiting from the southern port city of Basra, referring to the rule of the now-executed Sunni Arab dictator who savagely repressed Iraq’s Shia majority community.
Saddam Hussein barred the vast majority of Ashura commemorations, and the associated Arbaeen rituals, until his overthrow in the US-led invasion of 2003.
â€œI challenge anyone not to cry,â€ the worshipper said, describing his emotions on taking part in Ashura ceremonies.
The commemorations, which also include a ritual run to Hussein’s mausoleum and a reenactment of the attack that killed him, were due to wrap up in early afternoon.
Provincial authorities expect two million pilgrims, including 200,000 from outside Iraq, will have visited Karbala in the 10 days leading up to Ashura, with all of the city’s hotels fully booked.
Shias make up about 25 per cent of Muslims worldwide. They are a majority in Iraq, Iran and Bahrain, and there are large Shia communities in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, India, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Kuwait and Yemen.
Sunni-Takfiri militants linked to Al Qaeda often step up their targeting of Iraq’s Shia community during Ashura and Arbaeen, including by attacking pilgrims.
Security measures have been stepped up, with more than 35,000 soldiers and policemen deployed to Karbala and surrounding areas.