The Iraqi city of Karbala is preparing to receive millions of Shia pilgrims for Arbaeen, the 40th day commemoration of Imam Hussain’s death, who will descend on the city on November 9th from around the country and region.
This year's event is expected to be the largest of its kind in Iraq since the "Islamic State of Iraq and Syria" (ISIS) suffered a string of defeats.
This raises security concerns, Iraqi officials said, as pilgrims customarily travel to the shrine on foot, and there are fears remaining pockets of the group might seek to retaliate for its loss of territory by targeting innocent civilians.
"The number of visitors this year is expected to exceed last year’s count," according to Nasif al-Khitabi, the mayor of Karbala province.
Last year, 20 million visitors came to Karbala from various Iraqi provinces and from neighbouring countries, he said.
Pilgrims head to Karbala on foot from nearby provinces, necessitating tight security along the routes they travel, from Basra in the south, Maysan in the east and Baghdad in the north.
Preparations for Arbaeen, which include both security and the provision of services, started on Ashura, which fell on September 29th, and are still ongoing, said Karbala provincial council security committee chairman Aqil al-Masoudi.
"Karbala province has been on alert since then," he told Diyaruna.
All security and government agencies are part of a general plan to maintain security and provide high-quality services to visitors, he said.
Security forces in Karbala, in collaboration with the Baghdad Operations Command and police departments in neighbouring provinces, have executed a number of pre-emptive raids to arrest wanted individuals and suspects, he said.
Security forces also have been stepping up intelligence operations, he added.
"This type of event is considered an opportune moment for terrorist groups, particularly al-Qaeda and ISIS," he said, which each have tried to target visitors.
ISIS attempted to attack the event last year by sending several suicide bombers to Ain al-Tamr, western Karbala, he said, but Iraqi forces foiled the November 14th attack, killing all the attackers before they could reach their targets.
The effort to protect pilgrims traveling to Karbala must begin with taking out the remaining pockets of ISIS fighters in the Anbar province town of al-Qaim, the group’s last stronghold, security expert Fadel Abu Raghif told Diyaruna.
Closer to Karbala, security measures to protect visitors will be different this year, compared with previous years, when traditional measures such as blocking roads and imposing a curfew were implemented, he said.
This year’s security operations will mainly rely on intelligence, he said, noting that ISIS leadership can plan attacks from locations as far afield as al-Qaim.
Meanwhile, Karbala province has taken several steps to provide services and accommodation for the pilgrims.
Imam Hussain Visitor City director Abdul Amir Taha told Diyaruna the large housing complex has finished its preparations to welcome Iraqi and foreign visitors, and provide them with services such as health care and religious guidance.