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

Pilgrim Influx a Mixed Blessing

Surge in number of visitors to Shia shrines brings revenue and security headaches.
By Abdul Amir

For decades, Iraq's potential for religious tourism was an untapped resource due to the anxieties of the former regime of Saddam Hussein.


Anxious to prevent any contact between Iraq's Shia their co-religionists elsewhere, the Saddam regime placed tight restrictions on pilgrims anxious to visit the country's Shia shrines.


But all of that is changing now as the collapse of the regime has brought an influx of pilgrims and a financial windfall to Iraqis living in the holy cities or working in the tourist industry.


Although Iraq holds sites important to Christians, Jews, Sabaeans and Sunnis, the most numerous pilgrims by far are Shia who come to visit the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, as well as other shrines in Baghdad, Samarra and elsewhere.


In Karbala, where pilgrims come to commemorate the martyrdom of the seventh-century Imam Hussein, a central figure in Shia Islam, hotels are filled with tour groups from Iran, India, Lebanon and Pakistan.


Afghans and Central Asians mix with pilgrims from Saudi Arabia, other Arab Gulf countries and the Caucasus.


Residents say the overwhelming majority of the visitors come from Iran. Persian is heard more commonly than Arabic in Karbala’s main square, where families of visiting Iranians camp out in the streets and parks.


But that spectacle has triggered a backlash.


The surge of foreign visitors - many of whom are thought to have entered the country illegally along Iraq's long, largely unpoliced border – has raised concerns about security, particularly after the March 2 blasts which killed more than 180 people in Karbala and Baghdad.


"The presence of these Iranians affects the security situation," city police commissioner Abd al-Zahra Ghali Hasson told IWPR. "They stay between the two shrines all night long. Many of them are drug addicts.


"I arrested some of them after the explosions. I suspect some of them were involved in the explosions. Decreasing their numbers might help the maintenance of stability in Karbala."


Since the explosions, leaflets have been posted on the walls of mosques in Karbala and Najaf, publicising a recent fatwa or religious ruling from senior Shia cleric Grand Ayatollah Sayyid Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani addressed to "our Iranian brothers”, declaring that "it is haram”, or religiously forbidden, “to enter the territory of Iraq without going through checkpoints".


Iraqis contrast the security situation today with the days under Saddam, when foreign pilgrims had to pay a 300 US dollar fee to enter the country, and also found themselves under constant surveillance.


"The old regime's intelligence agents accompanied us even into the bathrooms. They prevented us from shopping alone," said Hussein al-Husseini, a tour leader for Iranian visitors.


"They even told us how much Karbala soil we should buy, even though they were already charging high duties on it," he said, referring to the earth used by many Shia in their prayers.


"We put Iranians under close observation... The old regime tried to make sure that there was no contact between Iraqis and Iranians," recalled Sabah Anwar, a former Iraqi intelligence charged with supervising pilgrims.


"We accompanied them from the very beginning of their trip, to the final step on their schedule. Now, however, thousands of them enter Iraq even without passports."


Despite concerns about security, the influx of pilgrims has provided a financial windfall for Iraqis living near the shrines.


Karbala resident Hussein Ali moved out of his home in the town’s centre, to rent a home in the outskirts for 20 dollars a month. He now leases out his old home for 75 times as much.


"I used to be out of work for months at a time," said Riyadh Jabbar, a truck driver from Baghdad who ferries pilgrims from the border. "Now I have no time to see even my family."


The Saddam regime deliberately stunted the development of an infrastructure that could handle mass tourism, hoteliers say.


Iraqis hope that creating new facilities will help in managing the crush, as well as bringing in more revenues.


"Once tourism is developed and airports are operation, we will be the richest country in the region," said Hasan Hashim, who manages the al-Aksa Tourist Company in Karbala.


Qahtan al-Azzawi, head of Iraq's Union of Travel Companies, said at a March 6 press conference that tourism ought to bring in 5 billion dollars annually, if it were working properly.


Meanwhile, formerly empty lots in Karbala have turned into construction project, while city council officials say they have drawn up plans for an international airport in the town of Khan al-Nuss, between Karbala and the nearby holy city of Najaf.


Although tourism officials in Karbala say that they have seen a slight drop-off in guests after the March 2 blasts, most expect the numbers to begin to rise again.


They say religious tourism has increased steadily despite the difficulties of travel in post-war Iraq as well as the August 2003 blast which killed more than 80 people outside the shrine of the Imam Ali in Najaf.


"Indian visitors have increased despite the lack of security and transportation," said Shaaban Ali, the head of al-Rida company. "They want to perform their rituals, no matter what the circumstances."


Amir Hussein Kadhemi, a pilgrim from the Iranian town of Isfahan who arrived in Karbala the day before the explosion, said he planned to stay on despite the risk.


Indeed, the carnage - the blood and the dead being taken away on carts reminded him of the seventh-century battle that he came to commemorate.


"Now I can feel the persecution of the Imam Hussein," he said. "I wish to join the caravan of martyrs. I will stay at the shrine. I will never fear the explosions."


Abdul Amir al-Jubury and Emad al-Sharee are IWPR trainees.


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