Twice the size of the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca, yet nowhere near as well known, the Arbaeen comes this year at a moment of victory for Shia Muslims over the extremist Sunnis of Isis. In the final part of his series, Patrick Cockburn reports on a moment of historic significance – the end of the so-called ‘Islamic State’ project.
Millions of black-clad Shia pilgrims are converging on the holy city of Karbala for the Arbaeen religious commemoration, the largest annual gathering of people anywhere on earth. Walking in long columns stretching back unbroken for as much as 50 miles, sleeping and eating in tents erected by supporters beside the road, the event has become an overwhelmingly powerful display of Shia belief and solidarity.
Arbaeen is the living symbol of the rise of the Iraqi Shia, a highly significant development in the Middle East, but it has happened only recently. Karim, 48, a tribal leader from Najaf, who provides free food for the pilgrims, recalls that when he first took part in an illegal Arbaeen walk under Saddam Hussein, “we had to take a roundabout route by the river [Euphrates] and try to keep hidden because, if we were caught, we would put in prison or executed”.
The Arbaeen has provided many modern-day Shia martyrs, murdered by Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and Isis, but its purpose is to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the revered Shia leader, killed in the battle for Karbala in AD680. The long ritual walk to his golden-domed shrine in that city – some walkers spend 10 or 12 days on the road from Basra or Kirkuk, others two or three days from Najaf – comes on the 40th day of the mourning period as religious fervor reaches its peak among the faithful.
Shia cities, towns and villages all over Iraq empty out during a 20-day period as their people take to the roads in an elaborately organized and well protected mass movement not seen anywhere else in the world. Estimates vary of the total attending, from highs of 15-17 million to a low of 6-7 million, but it includes at least two million Iranians whose numbers are easier to calculate because they require documentation to enter Iraq. Mohammed al-Hilli, the author of a book entitled The Arbaeen: the Walk, says that “the city of Karbala can only contain two or three million people at one time, but, since pilgrims are coming and going over a long time, the total attending will be much higher.” … Pilgrims from all over the world head for Najaf, Iranians being much the most numerous, but they also come from Pakistan, India, Azerbaijan, Lebanon and places where the Shia community must be tiny. Many of the pilgrims are teenagers or in their twenties.
The US shows little sign of having learned much about the Iraqi Shia community in the 14 years since the invasion. It certainly still underestimates them. The Arbaeen was not a victory rally for the Shia as Isis is defeated, but they may well feel that, in Iraq, their day has come.
Source: The Independent