Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iranian Pilgrims Face Highway Robbery

Increasing numbers of religious visitors are coming under attack as they visit shrines.
By Izzat Abdul

Six Iranian families sit at a desolate border post near the village of Munthiriya in eastern Iraq, waiting for relatives to send money allowing them to return home.


Like a number of their compatriots, these Iranians were trying to visit Iraq's Shia shrines, only to be robbed on the highway and stripped of all their belongings.


"Infidels," said 51-year-old Ali Shadnoosh of the robbers who set upon him amid the barren hills northwest of Baghdad, taking his money and car. "Only infidels would prevent us reaching the holy places."


Most of the families tell the same story – they were driving along the highway when two large cars came at them from behind, and then they were forced off the road at gunpoint.


Border officials and victims say they do not know who is carrying out the robberies.


"We will arrest these criminals," said Colonel Jabbar Mahdi, police chief of Munthiriya. He made no further comment, except to say that investigations were still ongoing.


Some pilgrims believe they are being victimised by Sunni supporters of the old regime.


"They are enemies of Islam, and of the Shia especially," said Maher Shenaki, 32, who was driving his parents to Baghdad when two large vehicles came up alongside and forced them to stop. All his money and the jewellery his mother was wearing were stolen in the attack.


"They could make more money along the Baghdad-Amman highway, so why do they do it here?" he asked.


Others voiced sadness that long-awaited trips into Iraq were being tainted by violence. "I waited long years to visit the holy places. I thought only Saddam was stopping me," said Hayda Bahzad. "But it turns out that there is more than one Saddam in Iraq."


Iraq is home to Shia Islam's holy shrines at Najaf and Karbala, but under Saddam Hussein pilgrimages by Iranians were reduced to a small trickle.


The fall of Saddam soon led to a flood of devout Iranian visitors, enjoying a circuit that includes shrines in the Samarra and the Kadhemiya district of Baghdad, Samarra as well as the two holy cities.


Amer Hadi, a travel agent in Kadhemiya, says the possibility that the pilgrims are being singled out by robbers is a “major danger” for Iraq, "It threatens to set religious tourism – which is now one of the major props of our economy – back to what it was before.”


Some travel agents say they have engaged Iraq's newly-founded private security companies to provide armed escorts for pilgrims as soon as they cross the border.


Some pilgrims have simply decided to look after their own security.


Jihan Nabawi, 56, and her sons, Haidar and Karim, were robbed soon after they crossed the border. Two Mercedes cars cut in front of their vehicle and forced it to stop, then the assailants took everything they had.


Nabawi told IWPR that she intended to go back to Tehran to get money, and will try again – this time accompanied by bodyguards.


Other Iranians are similarly defiant. "Saddam stopped us from coming to Iraq for years," said Rakhshan Musabati. "A bunch of thieves aren't going to stop us now."


Izzat Abdul Razaq is a trainee journalist in Baghdad.