BAGHDAD — More than 30 pilgrims died and dozens were injured Tuesday in a stampede at a major shrine in the Iraqi city of Karbala on the Shiite holy day of Ashura.
It is Iraq’s deadliest stampede in recent history during Ashura, whose commemorative marches had previously been targeted by Sunni extremist groups.
On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of Shiite pilgrims from around the world swarmed Karbala to commemorate the death of the Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Hussein.
The packed processions of black-clad worshipers made their way to his gold-domed shrine, around 100 kilometers (60 miles) south of Baghdad, carrying flags and crying out, “We sacrifice ourselves for you, Oh Hussein!”
As the massive crowds pressed forward, a stampede broke out that left at least 31 people dead and another 100 wounded, according to Iraq’s health ministry.
Ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr said the death toll could rise as 10 of the wounded were in critical condition.
Day of mourning
Hussein was killed in the year 680 by the forces of the Caliph Yazid, a major event which helped solidify the divide between what would become Islam’s Sunni and Shiite branches.
Iraq is majority Shiite, but under ex-dictator Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-dominated regime, the vast majority of Ashura commemorations were banned.
Now the day is a national holiday, and devout Shiite pilgrims travel from neighboring Iran and Gulf countries, as well as Pakistan and India, to mark it in Iraq.
Streets across the country were shuttered Tuesday to allow for funeral-style processions and elaborate re-enactments of the Battle of Karbala.
Mourners swung large black flags with “Hussein” written in red, wailing loudly and singing religious hymns praising him.
Some whipped their backs and chests to demonstrate their sorrow.
Others — even young boys — cut incisions into their foreheads with scalpels or large sabres, leaving streams of blood cascading down their faces.
After reaching the Imam Hussein shrine, some pilgrims set fire to a tent to symbolize the burning of Hussein’s camp by Yazid’s forces.
Similar ceremonies took place in the capital Baghdad, in the southern city of Basra and in Iraq’s second holy city Najaf, where the Prophet Mohammed’s son-in-law Ali is buried.
After Saddam’s ouster in 2003 by the US-led invasion, Iraq was rocked by years of intracommunal fighting.
The specter of sectarian violence made such processions deadly for years to come.
In 2005, at least 965 pilgrims heading to the Imam Kadhim shrine in Baghdad during a different holiday died after rumors of a suicide bomber in the crowd sparked a mass stampede.
And in 2013, nearly 40 Shiite pilgrims were killed across various Iraq cities in a series of attacks on Ashura.
The following year, the Islamic State group swept across a third of Iraq and carried out mass attacks against civilian populations, including Shiites.
Iraq declared victory against IS nearly two years ago, but the group continues to wage hit-and-run attacks in remote parts of the country.