A railway link between Iraq and Iran is set to be completed in early 2025, a senior government adviser on transportation said on Tuesday.
Early in September, Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia Al Sudani laid the foundation stone of the first rail line with Iran. The 30km line connects the Iranian border town of Shalamcheh with the southeastern Iraqi city of Basra.
Mr Al Sudani said the railway was planned to enable the transport of passengers between the two neighbouring countries, mainly devout Shiite pilgrims.
However, critics say the project will help Iran connect to the Mediterranean through Syria and will be used to transport goods from its ports that will ultimately kill Iraq’s hopes to link Asia and Europe through the Al Faw port on the Arabian Gulf.
"We should see the trains moving in about 18 months because it's a small distance," Nasser Al Asadi, transport adviser to the Iraqi PM, told Reuters.
Work is under way to clear the area before ground work could begin on the rail link, Mr Al Asadi said.
Iraq and Iran fought a devastating eight-year war in the 1980s, during which much of the border area was heavily mined.
Since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein, relations between the two nations have deepened, after which pro-Tehran Shiite Muslim parties enhanced their influence in Baghdad.
Baghdad and Tehran first discussed this project after the invasion. In 2014, they signed an agreement to start the construction, but were forced to halt the project as ISIS overran large areas in northern and western Iraq.
Millions of Shiite pilgrims visit Iraq
The Iraqi government is also planning a metro link between the Shiite cities Karbala and Najaf, home to revered Shiite shrines and the seat of Iraqi Shiite clergy.
Millions of Shiite pilgrims mainly from Iran visit Iraq around the year to commemorate major religious events for the sect.
During late August and early September, around 22 million pilgrims entered the city of Karbala to observe a major religious event known as Arbaeen. At least three million of them were Iranians.
Many pilgrims walk hundreds of kilometres from the Iran-Iraq border to Karbala, or drive there in overcrowded cars and buses. Deadly accidents have been frequent.
Dozens of them, mainly Iranians, have died this year in car accidents, while border authorities have struggled to cope with the number of visitors.
Mr Al Asadi said the rail link would reduce the risk of such accidents and allow Iraq to benefit financially from ticket sales.
The projects are part of a major transport-sector development planned by the government, including an overhaul of Baghdad's international airport and a 1,200km rail, road and services project from a major commodities port in the south to its border with Turkey.