The violence took place at a location between two important shrines in the holy city of Karbala as thousands of worshippers made their way to the area to observe Arbaeen, according to an Associated Press photographer at the scene. The Shiite pilgrimage marks the end of 40 days of mourning for Imam Hussein, Prophet Mohammed’s grandson.
The violence was sparked when a group of pilgrims from other parts of southern Iraq entered the visitation area separating the Imam Hussein and Imam Abbas shrines. They held banners with pictures of protesters killed in mass demonstrations last year and chanted anti-government slogans.
Paramilitary groups linked to Iraq’s top cleric tasked with guarding the shrines attempted to keep the group from intermingling with other pilgrims. Police were soon dispatched and beat some of the protesters with sticks.
At least 50 people were wounded in the altercations, two Iraqi security officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Among the wounded were 30 demonstrators and less than a dozen pilgrims, including women. Some of the militiamen guarding the shrines were also wounded.
New protests kicked off Oct. 1 in Baghdad to mark one year since mass anti-government protests engulfed the capital and the predominately Shiite south. A year ago, tens of thousands of Iraqi youth marched to decry rampant corruption and demanded early elections, better services and jobs. Over 500 people, mostly protesters, died by gunfire from Iraqi security forces who used live ammunition and tear gas to disperse crowds.
Protesters have given the government of Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi until Oct. 25 to initiate reforms and meet their demands. The incident in Karbala indicates mounting tensions as the deadline approaches.
Normally, tens of thousands of pilgrims from all over the world, particularly Iran, make their way to Karbala to mark Arbaeen. This year, Iraq closed its borders to non-residents over coronavirus concerns.