When lack of explosion makes news in Iraq

More than two million Shia pilgrims gather in Karbala for Ashura without a single bombing.

It is not often that a lack of explosions makes news. But in Iraq, still shaken by regular bombings, more than two million Shia Muslim pilgrims gathering in Karbala on Sunday without a single bombing is worth noting.

On Ashura, the 10th day of the holy month of Moharram, Karbala becomes the centre of the Shia world. Pilgrims walk for days from all parts of Iraq to reach there, joining tens of thousands of foreign visitors.

On Sunday, the Iraqi government deployed 30,000 police and soldiers around the shrine in Karbala.

Security forces have been on heightened alert for the past week and will guard government vehicles made available to the pilgrims to safely leave.

The faithful gather every year at the shrine of Imam Hussein and his followers killed in Karbala in 680AD in a battle central to not just the Shia faith but also Shia identity.

In Karbala, near the Kathimiya shrine in Baghdad, and throughout the provinces, followers re-enact the battle in the year 61 in the Islamic calendar in which he was outnumbered, surrounded and then killed by an army of the Caliph Yazid.

Some pilgrims beat themselves with chains and cut their foreheads with swords to commemorate the blood shed by Hussein and his followers.

Banned under Saddam

The killing cemented a split between what became the Shia and Sunni communities over who should succeed the Prophet Muhammad.

The commemorations were largely banned during Saddam Hussein’s reign and, since 2003, have become a regular target of attacks by al-Qaeda-linked groups.

Al-Qaeda ideology considers Shias heretics.

The Islamic State in Iraq, affiliated with al-Qaeda, has frequently claimed responsibility for bombings of Shia neighbourhoods and pilgrims.

Iraq’s civil war was set in motion by the al-Qaeda bombing of a Shia shrine in Samarra.

Iraqi security officials attributed the calm to better co-ordination this year between Iraq’s security forces and intelligence services.

Since it’s impossible to fully search each pilgrim near the shrine, officials have relied on intelligence to try to stop attacks while they’re in the planning stages and to ban vehicles from around the sites.

The government declared an official holiday on Sunday, making Baghdad a virtual ghost town.

Iraq took over sole control for security of the pilgrimages more than a year before US forces withdrew from Iraq last December.

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