Spiritually and politically, the Arbaeen festival in Iraq is one of the world’s largest annual gatherings of Shia Muslims.
During the festival held in the Iraqi city of Karbala, millions of pilgrims travel to the holy city to commemorate the killing of the Prophet Mohamed’s grandson during a 7th-century battle with rival Muslims.
The ceremony, which concluded on Saturday, marks the end of the 40-day mourning period following Ashura, the religious ritual for the commemoration of Imam Hussein, one of the most revered saints in Shiism.
The sacred time is a combination of religious rituals, worship, prayer, processions, politics, identity manifestations, and celebrations. It attracts millions of pilgrims, many of them walking from Shia-dominated areas in Iraq as they head to Karbala.
Many Shia pilgrims also drive or fly in from neighbouring countries and places as far afield as Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The Iraqi government said on Sunday that at least 21 million devotees had participated in the grand religious events despite political tensions over a deadlock in forming a new government and fears of another wave of Covid-19.
Since the fall of the Sunni-led regime of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq’s Shias have expanded this massive ritual, flocking to Karbala in the tens of thousands, crowding the highways on foot, and walking from the country’s Shia-populated cities.
The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that ended Saddam’s three-decade rule accelerated the empowerment of the country’s Shia community and encouraged them to resume mass rituals banned or restricted under Saddam.
The Imam Hussein, who rebelled against the then Umayyad Caliphate, was killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE along with his family members and close aides. Those who survived were taken to Damascus in Syria and held captive.
Muslim Shias consider Hussein’s martyrdom as a defining moment for their faith, and for centuries they have continued to observe the traditional mourning of his death, though mostly discreetly.
Today, along the way to Karbala, the pilgrims, men, women, and children all dressed in black and united in grief, march in procession and carry large flags of mourning. Some stop to sing in praise of Hussein’s heroic martyrdom and to pray.
On the road to the city that sits on the verge of Iraq’s western desert, the pilgrims stop to rest on the highway or to sip water and eat snacks at makeshift stands set up along the route.
Upon their arrival in Karbala, they go straight to the gold-domed shrine of Imam Hussein to kiss the gilding while neighbourhood committees set up kitchens to dispense free food, fruit, sweets, and soft drinks to the pilgrims.
Pilgrims who cannot find places in local mosques or schools mostly sleep shoulder to shoulder on the pavements and in the large squares around Hussein’s shrine and the adjacent tomb of his half-brother Abbas.
Some are allowed by locals into their houses out of hospitality, allowing them to take a shower or even a nap.
Despite its religious meaning, the ceremony has started to become a political platform charged with symbolism and defiance. What makes the event more significant is that the crowds also represent the concrete embodiment of the Shia community’s identity.
But while Iraqi Shias view the Arbaeen as a canvas on which they can project the intensity of their religious emotion and identity, their Iranian co-religionists have a high level of investment in the rituals, including geopolitical interests.
In the eyes of the Islamic Republic, which champions its claim over Shiism, it is not just the outpouring of energy and the commemoration of the past that is important in the Arbaeen, but also the crowds who are unified in present fealty.
To a regime that believes in exporting the teachings of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, its strategy remains bringing about similar examples in other Islamic countries, in particular those with substantive Shia populations.
Since the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, Iran has been extending its influence in the country, using multiple political, economic, and cultural tools to do so in addition to its local proxies.
One of the massive apparatuses that Iran’s Supreme leader Ali Khamenei has established in his office is that overseeing activities during visits to Shia holy shrines abroad, primarily in Iraq.
Similar to the one set up for the Hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, it is an essential tool in Tehran’s efforts to export the Islamic Revolution and disseminate Shia sentiment.
The body usually entrusts “Heyats Husseini Processions,” state-sponsored local associations with links to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, with organising the annual rituals.
About five million Iranian pilgrims entered Iraq to attend the Arbaeen pilgrimage this year, according to Iranian Interior Minister Ahmed Vehidi, mostly through crossing points along the 1,200 km border of the two countries and a few via Iraqi airports.
The influx forced the Baghdad government to remove limits on pilgrim numbers to avoid disturbances similar to those that have happened in previous years when Iranian pilgrims made their way into the country without visas or official papers.
Iran’s opposition media have reported that the government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars and made available huge resources to sponsor the pilgrimage, including free transportation, loans, cheap dollars, and free Internet on the road and inside Iraq.
The Iranian authorities, state-affiliated charities, and municipalities have deployed security personnel, religious guides, paramedic teams, garbage collectors, and other service providers to assist and help organise the crowds.
Khamenei on Saturday described this year’s Arbaeen as the most “glorious in history.” He urged Iranians to “follow the path… and to try to guide others to do so in every place.”
“The miraculous Arbaeen procession is a sign of God’s will to hoist Ahl Al-Bayt’s banner of Islam,” said Khamenei, referring to the Prophet Mohamed’s household, members of whom Shias hold as designated successors to the Prophet.
Yet, while Iran has wanted to present the huge gathering as a show of “soft power” and unity among Shias in the region, the rituals have also reportedly been marred by hiccups, including anti-Iranian sentiments.
Complaints over Iranian participation in the pilgrimage this year have erupted as the influx has begun to put more pressure on worn-out infrastructure and public services that have been depleted by decades of mismanagement, corruption, and instability.
Some Iranian pilgrims have deliberately and arrogantly disregarded rules made by the Iraqi authorities and local sentiments. Videos on the Internet show Iranians crossing lines on Iraq’s sovereignty.
In one video, a local mayor in Karbala is seen arguing with the head of an Iranian group over the demolition of the fence of a school building by pilgrims to bring in their power generator.
In another clip, an Iraqi soldier at a checkpoint stops an Iranian driver to ask him to take down an Iranian flag posted atop his truck while on his way to Karbala.
Multiple videos have emerged showing Esmail Qaani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Al-Quds Force and Iran’s point man in Iraq, touring Karbala to check on their well-being.
As the city struggles with the crowds amid scorching heat, pollution caused by congestion, a severe water and electricity crisis, and disruptions caused by the Iranian pilgrims’ extravagant behaviour, frictions have been almost inevitable between visitors and locals.
Iraqi Shia cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, leader of the mass Sadrist Movement, singled out the Iranians in a call for the more rigid regulation of the festival, but he also condemned any “assault” on “Iranian brethren.”
Many Iraqis have been complaining about Iran’s increasing outreach in their country, but the Arbaeen ceremony has underscored the Islamic Republic’s far-reaching ambitions in Iraq.
“Iran and Iraq are inseparable forever,” said Mohamed Hassan Abu Turabi, imam of the Friday Prayer in Tehran, in his sermon last Friday, repeating a slogan often used by Iranian officials.
The rhetoric was echoed by Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.
Such goals set by Iranian spokesmen create issues with many Iraqis and even raise the political ire of Al-Sadr, who recently rebelled against Tehran’s influence in Iraq.
The pilgrimage “has sent a clear message that Iraq is the Mecca for the guiltless [the Shia imams], the minaret of jihad, and the capital of the faith,” wrote Al-Sadr at the conclusion of this year’s festival.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.