Seven Iranian pilgrims were wounded when a roadside bomb struck their bus in southern Baghdad on Wednesday at the start of an important Shiite religious event, Iraqi officials said.
Hundreds of thousands of Shiites are expected to visit the city of Karbala and shrines elsewhere around Iraq as the Muslim sect marks the anniversary of a seventh century death of Imam Hussein. He was killed in a battle near Karbala that was part of a dispute over the leadership of a young Muslim nation following the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632.
Wednesday’s bomb detonated early in the morning as the bus was passing through the Sunni neighbourhood of Dora, en route to the shrine of a revered Shiite saint in Kazimiyah, police and hospital officials said.
The Iranians were travelling to Baghdad from the Holy City of Karbala, the officials added, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
The Karbala battle and Hussein’s death led to a Sunni-Shiite split of Muslims, a sectarian divide most visible recently in Iraq following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein and set the stage for the fiercest fighting in centuries between the country’s Shiite majority and Sunni minority. Saddam’s Sunni-dominated regime had persecuted the Shiites.
Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda militants have frequently targeted Shiite shrines and massive religious events, killing thousands of pilgrims across Iraq during the height of the sectarian fighting in 2006 and 2007. Devout Iranians, who were not allowed to travel to Iraq for pilgrimage under Saddam, have been often targeted in the past years as they crisscross Iraq to visit religious sites.
On Saturday, eight Iranian pilgrims were killed when several bombs detonated near a Shiite shrine in northern Baghdad. In the deadliest strike that day, a pair of bombs killed five Iranians pilgrims in a group of pilgrims resting near a mosque in Kazimiya.
The 10-day religious event, known as Ashura, will peak at the end of next week when the pilgrims, many walking hundreds of miles to reach Karbala to commemorate Hussein’s suffering while dying on the battlefield, converge on the holy city.
Security around Karbala has been beefed up, with a vehicle ban in place and pilgrims are allowed to enter the city only on foot. Additional checkpoints have been erected at several entrance points and 25,000 policemen and policewomen have been deployed to search the pilgrims at various points leading up to the mosque where Imam Hussein is buried.