Residents of the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor found the heavy presence of Iran-aligned militias disruptive and inflammatory as militiamen staged politically-tinged religious ceremonies to mark the month of Muharram, an activist said.
Militiamen blocked roads in several city centres in the eastern province in order to stage ceremonies that seemed to promote and encourage allegiance to Iran, Deir Ezzor activist Jamil al-Abed told Diyaruna.
These drew the ire of the local population, he said, as they were regarded as a public proclamation of the doctrine of Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), which calls for allegiance to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
The ceremonies come amid reports that Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has been expanding its influence in Deir Ezzor city by taking control of the city's mosques.
The ceremonies were organised and attended by militias affiliated with the IRGC, including Lebanese Hizbullah and Iraqi Kataib Hizbullah, al-Abed said.
One of the largest was organised by the Zainabiyoun militia (made up of Pakistani nationals) in the Iraq-Syria border town of Albu Kamal, he said.
Albu Kamal's al-Tayyara roundabout area was completely blocked off on account of the ceremonies, he said, adding that another ceremony was held in the city of al-Mayadeen and was heavily attended by elements of Lebanese Hizbullah.
This type of activity is not confined to Deir Ezzor, he noted, but is also taking place in various key areas of Damascus controlled by these militias.
Prominent Iraqi cleric Muhammad Saad al-Hakim held a number of ceremonies and met with several IRGC and affiliated militia leaders and local dignitaries, al-Abed said.
A number of Imam al-Mahdi Association officials also visited the region, led by Kataib Hizbullah official Ali al-Kazemi, he said, and they toured some residential neighbourhoods and handed out gifts to families and children.
Some residents expressed concern that the large gatherings could lead to a further outbreak of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the region, he said.
They were angered that civilians were pressured to attend these ceremonies, despite the risk of an outbreak, he added.
There have been reports in Deir Ezzor that many elements of IRGC-affiliated militias have been infected with coronavirus, he said -- among them the Iranian director of al-Furat field hospital which ministers to these militias.
A nurse who had worked at al-Assad Hospital in Deir Ezzor also died after becoming infected with the coronavirus, al-Abed said.