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Hundreds of thousands defy Iraq's coronavirus curfew to visit martyred imam's shrine

“We believe that the number of infected people will increase next week because of this visit," security source tells NBC News.
Security forces warn Shiite Pilgrims marching too the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim, a key Shiite imam, during preparations for the annual commemoration of his death, in Baghdad.Hadi Mizban / AP

The Iraqi government has been forced to deploy troops after hundreds of thousands of people defied coronavirus restrictions and attempted to visit a shrine sacred to Shiite Muslims, two senior security sources with knowledge of the situation told NBC News.

An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 people arrived at the shrine of Musa al-Kadhim, the seventh of the 12 imams who are considered to be the spiritual and political successors of the Prophet Muhammad, to the north of the country’s capital Baghdad, one of the sources said Friday.

“Security forces closed the area around the shrine in order to prevent people from entering them, gathering inside,” he said, adding: “We believe that the number of infected people will increase next week because of this visit.”

On Saturday as crowds approached the shrine they were prevented from entering and turned back by security forces.

Iraq imposed a weeklong curfew Monday after 10 deaths were recorded in the country. Flights were also suspended from Baghdad’s international airport and several governorates in the country also closed their borders. Another seven people have since died from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, and 195 cases have been confirmed.

Although they are closed due to the new coronavirus, Shiite pilgrims make their way to the shrine of Imam Musa al-Kadhim.Hadi Mizban / AP

But that did not deter pilgrims from turning up in their tens of thousands at the site where between 3 and 4 million usually arrive at this time of the year to pay their respects to the martyred imam.

Shiites are a sect of Islam who value commerating the descendants of the Prophet Muhammad’s family, through the lineage of his daughter Fatima known as the Ahlul Bayt, said Dr. Marryum Mahmood, a researcher at the Cadbury Center for the public understanding of religion in the British city of Birmingham. “They see them as pure,” she added.

Much like Catholicism, she added, worshippers seek intercession by calling on these progeny to pray, “so they are not praying to them, but through them to God.” As a result, visiting the shrine was important, she said,

As well as making their way from other parts of Iraq, in previous years, thousands of pilgrims have made their way to the holy site from Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan, Mahmood added.

Traditionally, pilgrims converge on foot on the imposing complex in Baghdad to pray and take part in mourning ceremonies that last several days.

Saturday was particularly important to them because it was the day that Musa al-Kadhim was martyred in a prison in what is now Iraq, Mahmood said.

Among the Shiites, who make up around 55 percent of Iraq’s population, there was a sense of defiance, particularly in light of recent tensions in the country between the United States and the predominantly Shiite Iran, she said.

While some Shiite Imams in the 10 million-strong city have urged people to obey the curfew rules, others like Muqtada al-Sadr, whose fighters clashed with U.S. troops after Saddam Hussein was driven from power, have done little to discourage people from visiting the shrine.

“I ask Allah to accept your visit and obedience,” al-Sadr, who has since recast himself as a bulwark against Iranian influence in Iraq, tweeted Friday.

He added that he hoped everyone would complete their visits quickly while following medical guidance so they would not be a source of infection to others.

He also told people not to assault security forces.

In response to the gatherings at the shrines, Iraq’s acting Prime Minister Adel Abdul- Mahdi said in a statement that fines would be issued to anyone breaching the curfew.

Those visitors were violating health regulations, he said.

Iraq’s ministry of health also warned against the gathering “because of the great risk” of spreading the virus.

The advice went unheeded.