Iranian Pilgrims Flock to Karbala

But some local officials say Tehran should do more to help accommodate them.

Iranian Pilgrims Flock to Karbala

But some local officials say Tehran should do more to help accommodate them.

Tuesday, 25 August, 2009
Fatima Aasifie, from Ilam in western Iran, is among millions of her compatriots who visit holy sites in Iraq every year, taking advantage of an easing of restrictions since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"This is the fourth time that I have been to Karbala in the last six years to visit the shrines of Imam Hussein and Abbas after the cursed Saddam banned us from doing so,” said Fatima.

Karbala , a major tourism centre 100 kilometres south of Baghdad, is a city of great religious fervour. Located there are the shrines of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, and his brother Abbas, which are especially holy to Shia believers. They died fighting over the caliphate in the battle of Karbala in 680.

The shrines have made Karbala a magnet for Shia from across the Muslim world since visits became easier in 2003 and Iranians crossing the border are by far the most numerous.

But local officials complain that Tehran has not made good on an offer to support the infrastructure needed to accommodate the pilgrims.

"Lots of Karbala people today think that Iranians are one of the most important factors supporting the city's commerce because they make so many visits. Some Karbala residents pay me in Iranian currency when hiring my taxi and I am happy about that,” said taxi driver Ahmad Hasan.

It was not always thus. Relations were tense for most of the 1980s because of the Iran-Iraq war. Iranian citizens who had settled in the city were deported – including many who had married into local Shia Arab families.

Raed Issam is the product of just such a union, with a father from Iraq and a mother of Iranian origin. The 29-year-old civil servant said Saddam Hussein’s government struck at the sectarian ties between Iranian and Iraqi Shia by confiscating land and property Iranians owned around Karbala.

“The bond is ancient,” Issam said. “Iranian Shia still yearn for the spot where Imam Hussein was killed.”

Under the former regime, Iranian pilgrims were shadowed by intelligence agents, but now they visit freely, boosting local commerce.

“We depend on the Iranian pilgrims,” said Bassam al-Safie, owner of Ikhwan hotel.

Amal al-Deen al-Hir, the governor of Karbala, said, “The thousands of Iranian pilgrims outnumber the other [visitors], and we want to develop that because they are considered a source of benefit to the economy of the city and the Iraqi state.”

Along with the pilgrims has come a flood of Iranian imports. The English-language Iran Daily said in January that annual exports to Iraq were around two billion US dollars. Recently, an Iraqi importer recently bought thousands of Iranian-made Peugeot cars

But local officials complain about what they see as the lack of Iranian investment in Karbala’s accommodation sector while local tourist operators say they are losing out in arrangements with their Iranian partners.

Governor Hir said Iran was supposed to build residential units in Karbala after a visit by the Iranian minister of housing, during which he was accompanied by the Iraqi minister of municipality and the deputy housing minister. However “what was discussed has not materialised yet", he said.

Jamal Haj Yaseen, the head of the Karbala investment committee, said, “Lots of companies have visited us including Iranian ones, and they offered investments. Yet, only one Iranian company signed an investment licence with Baghdadi Group to build a mall and series of hotels using 113,000 square metres of land for 40 million dollars.”

With thousands of Iranian pilgrims entering Karbala every day, the city simply doesn’t have enough hotels to accommodate them.

"Karbala has got 315 licensed hotels, but most of them are two stars and do not take more than 40 people. The capacity of those hotels is rather low,” said Ahmad Abdulhussein, head of the state tourism office.

At the same time, Karbala tourist operators feel short-changed by agreements with their Iranian counterparts. The former used to receive 10 dollars a day per pilgrim to cover accommodation and meals. However, that was regarded as inadequate. It was then raised to 20 dollars, though some operators are still unhappy.

But Iraqi complaints have done little to put off the Iranian visitors, who are even undeterred by repeated extremist attacks on them - one last February in Iskandiriyah killed 32.

"They adore this spot and are willing to die here," said tourism official Ahmad Abdulhussein.

Samar Saleh is an IWPR-trained journalist in Karbala.
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