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Shiite pilgrims defy bombings in Iraq to mark Arbaeen

Shiite pilgrims rely on the kindness of Shiites and even some Sunnis who set up hospitality tents along the road to the holy city of Karbala. Both pilgrims and volunteers say they won't be stopped by the risk of violence.

By Jane ArrafCorrespondent / January 14, 2012

Shiite faithful gather for Arbaeen, which marks the end of the 40th day of mourning period after the anniversary of the 7th century martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the Prophet Muhammad's grandson, in Karbala, 50 miles south of Baghdad, Iraq, Friday.

Hadi Mizban/AP

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Baghdad

Millions of Shiite Muslim pilgrims, intent on carrying out a commemoration denied to them here for decades, are defying ongoing bombings to converge on the holy city of Karbala.

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Most of the pilgrims are in plastic sandals – some with only tape holding them together – during the three-day walk from Baghdad. Some push friends or relatives in wheelchairs and carry small children. A few wrap themselves in the white shrouds they want to be buried in if they die on the way.

Carrying nothing, they rely on the kindness of Shiites and some Sunnis who set up hospitality tents along the way providing food, medical treatment, and a place to rest – despite the risk posed by terrorist attacks.

“They want to stop us from serving the pilgrims but we won’t be stopped,” says volunteer Jafar Ghazi Mohammad, who lost his mother Saniya Hassan two years ago in the single worst attack on pilgrims, which took place on the northern outskirts of Baghdad. She had volunteered to search women entering the women’s tent.

“We’re much stronger than them. No matter what they do we’re stronger,” says Mr. Mohammad.

Distributing oranges from the basket of his bicycle, he and others say they were undaunted by six roadside bombs dismantled by police this week just a few hundred yards from their tent. Police officers, who asked that their names not be used, said the bombs were disguised in bricks and scattered on the gravel near the highway. A seventh exploded, damaging a minibus but causing no casualties.

Pilgrims remember those killed

Dozens of Iraqis have been killed so far in bombings targeting the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims thronging roads leading to southern Iraqi city where Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was killed in battle by fellow Muslims in 680 A.D. – a battle in which today's Sunni-Shiite split is rooted.

Iraqi authorities expect several million pilgrims to have arrived in Karbala by Saturday for Arbaeen – the 40th day of mourning. More than 30,000 Iraqi police and soldiers have been deployed to Karbala for the first such commemoration since US troops withdrew from Iraq last month.

A roadside shrine

Just inside Baghdad’s northern city limits, many of the pilgrims walking from as far as Iraqi Kurdistan stop at a small roadside shrine marking the site of the single worst attack on pilgrims two years ago.

Under the green concrete dome, Assawar Assam says the prayer for the dead for her school friend Shaima Haider and then leans over the shrine draped with green satin to kiss her photo.

“She was with us in fourth grade,” says Assawar, who stops every time she passes the shrine. “She was very kind. She liked to help the poor, she liked to help everyone.”

It was at one of the hospitality tents here that Maitham Mohammad Dhahr saw a lone, middle-aged woman cross the highway near the village of Boub al-Sham.

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