21 million Shias mark Arbaeen in Karbala Iraq

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Karbala (Iraq) (AFP) – Dressed in black, 21 million pilgrims from around the world gathered in the Iraqi city of Karbala on Saturday for the commemoration of Arbaeen, against a backdrop of political crisis.

Arbaeen marks the end of the 40-day mourning period for the 7th century murder of Imam Hussein by the forces of Caliph Yazid – a formative event in Shia Islam.

The annual festival sees men and women from across Iraq and beyond travel to Karbala, where Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas are buried, for one of the largest religious gatherings in the world.

After two years marked by the Covid pandemic and border restrictions, 21.2 million pilgrims flocked to the central Iraqi city this week, the organization that manages Abbas’s mausoleum said.

Among them are five million foreigners, including a record more than three million from neighboring Iran, according to authorities in both countries.

On the esplanade connecting the mausoleums of Hussein and Abbas, the faithful recited prayers on Saturday.

Groups of men beat their chests to the rhythm of religious chants and the din of loudspeakers, some of them slowly circling the two mausoleums.

Pilgrims waved black flags and banners bearing the likeness of Imam Hussein.

Since the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein in the US-led invasion in 2003, attendance at Arbaeen has steadily increased.

“Arbaeen means different things to different people,” said Alex Shams, a PhD student at the University of Chicago who specializes in Shia politics.

“For Iraqi Shiites, it is really the expression of their freedom after years of dictatorship and also the pride of their Shiite identity,” he told AFP.

This year, the commemorations take place against the backdrop of the political crisis in Iraq.

Quarrels between the two main Shia factions – the pro-Iran coordination framework and a bloc loyal to Imam Moqtada Sadr – have prevented the formation of a coalition government.

The crisis escalated into violence in late August, when Sadr’s supporters clashed with the army and forces of Hashed al-Shaabi, former paramilitaries integrated into the regular army.

More than 30 Sadr supporters were killed.

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