Iraq stepped up security amid fears of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group launching major attacks as thousands of Shia worshipers flocked Monday to the shrine city of Karbala for an annual pilgrimage.
The pilgrims are prime targets for the ISIS jihadists, who have carried out a series of mass executions in recent days, killing scores of members of a tribe in Iraq’s western Anbar province.
Millions of pilgrims from Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon, Iran and countries from all over the world are heading to Karbala for the Tuesday peak of Ashura, which marks the death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad and one of the most revered figures in Shia Islam.
Weekend bombings in the Baghdad area killed at least 72 people, security and medical officials said.
ISIS has claimed responsibility Monday for two car bomb attacks targeting Shias in Baghdad on Sunday. At least 19 people were killed in Sunday’s bomb blasts.
A statement by ISIS posted on jihadist websites said “the heroes of Islam” detonated one car bomb in central Baghdad targeting Shia security personnel and the other in the Shia-majority Sadr City area in the capital’s north.
“God permitted his servants the mujahideen to break all of the alleged (security) plans of the Safavid government that they brag about in their media,” the statement said, using a pejorative term for Shias.
It said the bombings were carried out to coincide with “the greatest of their blasphemous seasons”, a reference to Ashura, a Shia commemoration that will peak on Tuesday.
In the deadliest attack, a suicide bomber detonated an explosives-rigged truck at the checkpoint leading to southern Baghdad, killing at least 20 people and wounding at least 53 on Saturday.
Pilgrims have been targeted during Ashura before, but this year’s commemorations face even greater danger after ISIS seized control of large areas of Iraq in a June offensive. Like other extremists, ISIS considers Shias heretics.
Authorities have deployed thousands of security personnel and allied militiamen to protect the pilgrims, in what will be a major test for the new government headed by Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi.
“The security plan is fully in effect and the security forces are on a state of high alert,” an Iraqi police colonel told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Police were deployed throughout Shia neighborhoods of Baghdad and security forces are guarding the 100-kilometer (60-mile) route from the capital to Karbala.
In Karbala, more than 26,000 members of the security forces were deployed, backed up by helicopters providing air support and monitoring desert areas, army Staff Lieutenant General Othman al-Ghanimi told reporters.
At the entrance to the city, police were using X-ray trucks to scan vehicles and sniffer dogs were checking arrivals. Some 1,500 policewomen were also deployed to check female pilgrims.
ISIS group has declared a “caliphate” in parts of Iraq and neighboring Syria under its control, imposing its harsh interpretation of Islamic law and committing widespread atrocities.
Mass killings in Anbar
In recent days the group is reported to have slaughtered dozens of people from the Albu Nimr tribe, which had taken up arms against the jihadists in Anbar.
A police officer and an official gave figures of more than 200 to 258 people killed, while Iraq’s human rights ministry put the toll at 322 and a tribal leader said 381 were executed.
The killings are likely aimed at discouraging resistance from powerful local tribes in Anbar, where large areas have been overrun by ISIS as pro-government forces suffered a string of setbacks.
There are fears the province, which stretches from the borders with Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the western approach to Baghdad, could fall entirely to the jihadists.
A US-led coalition of Western and Arab nations has carried out a wave of air strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria.
The airstrikes come almost three years after US troops completed their withdrawal from Iraq, ending a nearly nine-year occupation.
Anbar was the main battleground between US Marines and al-Qaeda during the “surge” campaign in 2006-2007, when American troops enlisted the help of local tribes, including Albu Nimr.
The expansion of terrorist groups in Ramadi raises questions about the effectiveness of the US anti-terrorism campaign since 2001.
Under the pretext of “weapons of mass destruction” and “terrorism” the United States decided to invade Iraq in 2003.
The war aimed to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, but inspectors said there weren’t any.
The war aimed to eliminate al-Qaeda in Iraq, but the terrorist group didn’t exist in the country until after the invasion. The US invasion served as a recruitment tool for terrorist groups, as figures show that terrorism rose precipitously in Iraq since 2003.
The war aimed to “free Iraqis” but instead killed at least two and a half million Iraqis and left the country in total turmoil.
Source: Al-Akhbar English