Shia pilgrims numbering millions, all clad in black, are converging on the holy city of Kerbala for the Arbaeen religious commemoration. The religious event marks the largest annual gathering of people in the world. What makes the occasion extra special this year is that it coincides with the final defeat of ISIS.
ISIS has a lot to answer to these people. The terrorist group slaughtered Shia in their tens of thousands with the goal of overthrowing the Shia- dominated government in Baghdad.
The piece of good news came from the Syrian army which announced earlier that it has already captured the last ISIS-held town in Syria, Albu Kamal. The victory came a few days after ISIS was driven from western Iraq.
Shia pilgrims walk in long columns, amazingly unbroken for as much as 50 miles. The pilgrims also just eat and sleep in tents erected by supporters beside the toad. The occasion is a powerful display of Shia faith and solidarity.
Some walkers spend around 10 to 12 days on the road from Basra or Kirkuk, while others walk for about two or three days from Najaf for the ultimate 40th day of the mourning period when religious fervor reaches its peak among the believers.
The pilgrims also carry black, green, red and white flags. They also decorate the brick buildings and temporary tents which serve as a multi-purpose place for praying, eating and sleeping.
The Arbaeen has produced many modern-day Shia martyrs, murdered by dictator Saddam Hussein, al-Qaeda and ISIS. Although the purpose of the gathering is to mourn the martyrdom of Imam Hussein. Hussein is acknowledged as the founding father of the Shia faith who was killed in the Kerbala war in AD680.
Other Shia cities, towns and villages all over Iraq also take part in the occasion with many residents taking a 20-day period to be on the roads in what is described as “elaborately organized and well-protected mass movement”. Nothing else in the world is quite like it.
The estimate for the number of people participating in the gathering varies, from a high of 15-17 million to a low of 6-7 million. It can also include at least two million Iranians who go all the way to Iraq to join the gathering.
There are also adequate of supply of food for the pilgrims. It has become such a highly-organized event that there are also small clinics and dentists all working for free. Caring for the pilgrims for free is considered a religious duty.
This year more red, white and black Iraqi national flags are also more visible, symbolizing greater identification with the Iraqi state by the Shia.