Known as the biggest gathering in the world of Islam, this year’s Arbaeen Walk brought more than 20 million pilgrims from across the world to Iraq.
Since nearly two weeks ago, people from different countries have moved to Iraq to commemorate the holy ceremony of Arbaeen Walk to honor the 40th day of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the third Imam of Shia Muslims.
But the interesting part of this long journey that is taken from Najaf to Karbala all on foot, is that it is not only Shia Muslims who take part in the ceremony. Every year, millions of non-Shia Muslims and even people from other religions go to Iraq and walk to Karbala, the city where Imam Hussein was martyred in the battle of Karbala back in 680 AD. Imam Hussain and his true companions were martyred in the battle against the army of then-time tyrant Yazid I, led by ‘Umar b. Sa’d.
And just like the years before, this year’s Arbaeen was attended by millions. According to Iraqi figures this Tuesday, more than 15 million Iraqis and 5 million foreigners from across the world including men, women, and children, participated in this year’s Arbaeen pilgrimage.
Karbala and Kirkuk both crowded but for different reasons
While Iraq’s city of Karbala is very crowded these days for the holy purpose of honoring the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the city of Kirkuk in north of Baghdad, whose control has historically been disputed between Iraqi Kurdistan and federal authorities in Baghdad, is scene to protests and unrest due to growing disputes between Kurdish and Arab residents.
The conflict between the autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan and the central government in Baghdad is not new, but recent developments have added fuel to the already huge fire of contention in Kirkuk. Iraqi Kurdistan has long accused Baghdad of not delivering the necessary funds to pay civil servants in the region. On this Sunday, Baghdad sent a package of 500 billion dinars (about $380 million) for the region’s salaries, but according to the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, practically double that amount is needed each month to pay workers.
To protest the situation, thousands of people have taken to the streets of Kirkuk since last week, carrying flags of the Iraqi Kurdistan region over unpaid civil service salaries which they blamed on Baghdad. But this week, the protests turned violent and led to the deaths of four people on Saturday in Kirkuk.
“Kurdistan will not back down in the face of the Iraqi authorities’ hostile policies,” one banner said at the demonstration in Dohuk, the third-biggest city in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq. “Solidarity with our people in Kirkuk,” said another placard.
For years, the Kurdistan region in Iraq was, thanks to its independent oil exports, in no contact with Baghdad regarding financial matters. In other words, the region could sell oil and bring revenue home to pay for its expenses. Since the end of March, however, it has been deprived of this resource because of a dispute with Baghdad and Turkey, through which oil was exported.
To settle the dispute, Kurdistan and Baghdad concluded an agreement this past July to end tensions and consented that sales of Kurdish oil would pass through the federal government. In exchange, Baghdad agreed to allocate nearly 13 percent of the federal budget to Iraqi Kurdistan. However, the agreement seems not to be good enough to completely resolve the issue and it is expected that the protest continue for the days ahead.