KARBALA, Iraq // Attacks against Shiites, including a suicide bombing that ripped through a religious procession, killed 39 people in Iraq yesterday despite massive security deployed for one of the holiest days of their faith.
The bloodshed came as a flood of worshippers, including tens of thousands of foreign pilgrims, thronged the central shrine city of Karbala for the climax of Ashura, braving the repeated attacks by Sunni militants that have marred the festival in previous years.
The suicide bomber struck in a Shiite-majority area of confessionally mixed Diyala province, north of Baghdad, killing 30 people and wounding 65, security and medical officials said.
It was the third attack of the day to target Shiites.
Earlier, coordinated blasts in the town of Hafriyah, south of the capital, killed nine people, while twin bombings in the northern oil city of Kirkuk wounded five.
Shiites from Iraq and around the world mark Ashura, which this year climaxed yesterday, by setting up procession tents where pilgrims gather and food is distributed to passers-by.
An estimated two million faithful gathered in Karbala, site of the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, whose death in the city at the hands of soldiers of the caliph Yazid in 680 AD lies at the heart of Islam’s sectarian divide.
Tradition holds that the venerated imam was decapitated and his body mutilated.
To mark the occasion, modern-day Shiite devotees flood Hussein’s mausoleum, demonstrating their ritual guilt and remorse for not defending him by beating their heads and chests and, in some cases, making incisions on their scalps with swords in ritual acts of self-flagellation.
Black-clad pilgrims packed the shrines of Hussein and his half-brother Abbas, listening over loudspeakers to the story of the battle in which Hussein was killed as volunteers distributed food and water.
“I have been coming since I was young, every year, even during the time of the tyrant Saddam,” said Abu Ali, a 35-year-old pilgrim visiting from the southern port city of Basra, referring to the late Iraqi ruler, who savagely repressed the country’s Shiite majority community.
Saddam Hussein barred the vast majority of Ashura commemorations, and the associated Arbaeen rituals, until his overthrow in the US-led invasion of 2003.
“I challenge anyone not to cry,” the worshipper said, describing his emotions on taking part in Ashura ceremonies.
Provincial authorities expected that two million pilgrims - including 200,000 from outside Iraq - would visit Karbala in the 10 days leading up to Ashura.
Shiites make up about 15 percent of Muslims worldwide. Sunni militants linked to Al-Qaeda, who regard Shiites as apostates, often step up their targeting of Iraq’s majority community during Ashura and Arbaeen, including by attacking pilgrims.
Security measures were stepped up, with more than 35,000 soldiers and policemen deployed to Karbala and surrounding areas.
The violence against Shiites is the latest in Iraq’s deadliest unrest since 2008.
It has prompted Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki, himself a Shiite, to appeal to the United States for help in the form of intelligence sharing and the delivery of new weapons systems.