Dozens of Iraqis have been killed so far in bombings targeting the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims thronging roads leading to southern Iraqi city where Imam Hussein, grandson of the prophet Muhammad, was killed in battle by fellow Muslims in 680 A.D. – a battle in which today's Sunni-Shiite split is rooted.
Iraqi authorities expect several million pilgrims to have arrived in Karbala by Saturday for Arbaeen – the 40th day of mourning. More than 30,000 Iraqi police and soldiers have been deployed to Karbala for the first such commemoration since US troops withdrew from Iraq last month.
Just inside Baghdad’s northern city limits, many of the pilgrims walking from as far as Iraqi Kurdistan stop at a small roadside shrine marking the site of the single worst attack on pilgrims two years ago.
Under the green concrete dome, Assawar Assam says the prayer for the dead for her school friend Shaima Haider and then leans over the shrine draped with green satin to kiss her photo.
“She was with us in fourth grade,” says Assawar, who stops every time she passes the shrine. “She was very kind. She liked to help the poor, she liked to help everyone.”
It was at one of the hospitality tents here that Maitham Mohammad Dhahr saw a lone, middle-aged woman cross the highway near the village of Boub al-Sham.