Baghdad (AsiaNews/Agencies) - A deadly mortar attack Friday near the Iraqi city of Karbala pushed the authorities to tighten security measures as millions of Shia pilgrims gather in the Shia holy city in southern Iraq.
Shortly after midnight, "one person [was] killed and four wounded when mortar rounds hit an area on the western side of the city", a police official said. Victims included residents and non-pilgrims. A medical source in the holy city of Karbala confirmed the toll.
This has been a record year for the holy city of Karbala. Millions of Iraqis and foreigners have come to observe Arba'een commemoration, which marks the end of the 40-day period of mourning after the anniversary of the death of Imam Husayn ibn Ali, Muhammad's grandson.
Iraqi Defence Minister Khaled al-Obeidi said Thursday that the number of pilgrims in the city hit a record 17.5 million this year. "The number of Arab and foreign pilgrims has reached 4.5 million, of 60 different nationalities, the biggest contingent being Iranians," he told reporters. "And until today, we had 13 million Iraqis," he said.
Iraqi authorities also tightened security measures in the capital Baghdad. Three people were killed and four wounded earlier this week, according to security and medical sources, when a bomb went off in a northeastern Baghdad neighbourhood, near one of the thousands of tents set up to serve food and beverages to marching pilgrims.
The 2014 edition also has an important political dimension since it is the first since Islamic State Sunni forces seized large swathes of northern and western Iraq last June.
For Jihadists, Shias are "heretics" whom they have repeatedly targeted with bombings and other attacks.
However, this year the death toll has been limited so far and existing security measures seem to be working against the onslaught by the Islamist militias.
Karbala is a place of pilgrimage for Shias, not only from Iraq but also from the entire region, attracting millions of people to one of the most important religious gatherings on the planet.
Banned under Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, Shia pilgrimages have become a common occurrence since 2003.
However, Sunni extremist groups and al Qaeda have targeted them for terrorist attacks in the context of the conflict with the Shia majority, killing hundreds.