Tight security for Ashura in Iraq.
The rituals - commemorating the killing of Imam Hussain by armies of the Caliph Yazid in 680 - will reach their climax in Karbala today, but processions marking Shiite Islam's holiest days have been held across the country for the past week.
The shrine city south of Baghdad was heavily guarded as devotees from across the Muslim world walked through a series of security checkpoints to reach the main focus of their pilgrimage - two imposing shrines, one to Imam Hussain and the other to his half-brother Imam Abbas.
"Security is tight to ensure Ashura ceremonies are under control, but there are fears on the border between the Najaf and Karbala and Babil, which has a wide border and troops have been deployed this year to prevent any breakthroughs by suicide bombers or groups outside the law," Major General Abdul Karim Al Mayahi, the commander of operations in Najaf told Gulf News.
The Iraqi security authorities fear a repetition of the suicide bombing which targeted the Imam Al Kadhim shrine on Sunday, which is believed to have been coordinated with the help of some accomplices of local officials.
"One of the most important measures taken this year is to prevent the entry of dozens of vehicles accompanying the officials of the government and the Shiite parties into Karbala for fear of infiltration of terrorists. Access will be limited to the official car and counted escorts," said Taha Al Khazaali, a colonel in Karbala Operations Command.
"More than 28,000 security forces including back-up troops from the interior ministry in Baghdad have been deployed to control the security of the city," military commander Brigadier General Othman Qanimi revealed earlier this week.
Akil Al Khazali, governor of Karbala province, said more than 55,000 foreigners had already arrived from countries such as Iran, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan and Tanzania.
Swarming crowds in Karbala on Tuesday joined sombre processions in which men and even some boys, accompanied by drummers, beat their chests and engaged in the devotional self-flagellation that characterises the Ashura rituals.
Tradition holds that Hussain was decapitated and his body mutilated by Yazid's armies.
Goblet of water
To express remorse and guilt for not saving Hussain, Shiite volunteers flay themselves with chains or slice their scalps during processions to the two shrines. Tents and small wooden rooms covered in black fabric and adorned with lights and pictures of Shiite imams have sprung up across the city for pilgrims in need of food or seeking a rest from the intense bustle of the streets.
The pilgrims ritually drink a goblet of fresh water to remember the burning thirst that 71 family members of Imam Hussain endured as they were led through the desert to captivity in Syria.
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