JNN 16 Dec 2010 KARBALA: Iraq has arrested 73 Al-Qaeda-linked suspects officials said were implicated in plotting “chaos” during Ashura in Karbala, as two million pilgrims thronged the shrine city on Thursday.
The arrests underscored fears of violence during the 10-day Mourning Majalis and Processions that culminate on Friday, in a key test for Iraq’s security forces ahead of a complete withdrawal of American troops in a year.
Vehicle traffic in Karbala was brought to a virtual standstill as pilgrims were made to walk to the shrines of the revered Imams Hussein and Abbas, while all visitors were searched at checkpoints.
“We were able to destroy 14 terrorist cells and arrest 73 people, including 37 wanted persons,” Karbala provincial council chief Mohammed al-Mussawi said. “We seized lots of weapons, IEDs (improvised-explosive devices), explosives belts and equipment.
“If they had been able to mount their attacks during the pilgrimage, it would have created chaos. Karbala is the main target for terrorists during Ashura.”
Mussawi said those arrested were suspected members of Al-Qaeda.
Speaking on Wednesday, the Iraqi army commander responsible for security in five provinces including Karbala said those detained were implicated in an Al-Qaeda-linked group called the Boys of Heaven.
General Othman al-Ghanimi said a total of 80 suspects had been arrested.
Mussawi said the number of pilgrims in Karbala for the commemorations had reached two million, 238,000 of them from abroad.
Karbala police spokesman Major Alaa Abbas reported no incidents in the city so far. He said tight security arrangements would remain in force until the pilgrims had headed home after the ceremonies.
The deadliest Ashura attacks were in March 2004 when near-simultaneous bombings in Karbala and at a Shia mosque in Baghdad killed more than 170 people.
“Everything right now inside Karbala is good,” said 40-year-old Kadhim Hussein, a pilgrim from the southern port city of Basra. “We will continue our commemorations of Hussein’s martyrdom despite all the threats from enemies.”
Massive crowds thronged streets across Lebanon on Thursday to mark the Shiite holy day of Ashura, responding in force to a call by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah the previous night.
A correspondent at the scene said tens upon tens of thousands of Nasrallah’s supporters lined the streets of the Hezbollah-controlled southern suburb of Beirut as the 10 days of rituals to mourn the Ashura.
Millions of Iranians, beating themselves with fists and chains, marked the climax of Ashura on Thursday, a day after a suicide bomber killed 34 people taking part in a procession.
Men, women and children dressed in black gathered in cities across Iran as the 10 days of rituals to mourn the death of Imam Hussein, the faith’s third imam, reached a peak.
Iranian state television carried live footage of the Ashura processions in the capital Tehran, the second city of Mashhad, the Shiite clerical centre of Qom and the smaller cities of Yazd, Bam and Ardebil.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was shown attending a gathering in south Tehran.
Crowds of mourners, meanwhile, were seen across Tehran staging short street plays depicting the Karbala battle which led to Imam Hussein’s A.S Martyrdom .
Chanting “Ya Hussein!” the crowds, many of them shirtless men beating their chests with their fists, set fire to makeshift tents and re-enacted the killing of Hussein as women and children watched, some with tears in their eyes.