KARBALA - An estimated 14 million Shiite pilgrims thronged Iraq's holy city of Karbala on Friday to mark the annual Arbaeen commemoration, as Baghdad looks to wipe out the Islamic State group that has targeted their branch of Islam.
Arbaeen is one of the biggest religious festivals on earth and marks the end of the 40-day mourning period for the 7th-century killing of Imam Hussein by the forces of the Caliph Yazid -- a formative event in Shiite Islam.
Under tight security, around 14 million worshippers crowded into the golden-domed mausoleum where the Prophet Mohammed's grandson is buried, Karbala's religious authorities said, beating their chests in unison against a background of religious music.
Imam Hussein's killing in the Battle of Karbala in 680 AD was part of a fierce dispute over who should succeed the Prophet, which eventually developed into a bitter schism between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam.
Tens of thousands of security personnel and Shiite militiamen were deployed, as in past years, around the perimeters of the sanctuary as well as on all roads leading to Karbala, about 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of Baghdad.
The expulsion of IS from Iraqi cities has added an extra dimension to this year's pilgrimage, as the Sunni extremist group has repeatedly targeted Shiites. Last year, a suicide bombing killed at least 70 mainly Iranian worshippers returning from the commemoration.
The jihadists have seen their self-styled "caliphate" disintegrate on the battlefield, and are currently fighting to hold a last pocket of territory in Iraq on the Syrian border.
- 'Finished with IS' -
Believers from across the Middle East and beyond have made the pilgrimage to Karbala.
Shiites make up some 60 percent of Iraq's population and ahead of the peak of the commemorations local governor Aqil Tourihi told AFP that over 10 million Iraqis had arrived.
More than two million Iranian pilgrims also crossed the border into Iraq for Arbaeen, an Iranian official said.
"The conditions are perfect, above all in terms of catering for pilgrims and security," Kuwaiti pilgrim Fadel Yaqoub told AFP.
The overall attendance appeared down on the roughly 17 to 20 million people estimated to have attended Arbaeen in 2016.
Helicopters flew overhead to ensure security in the city, located some 300 kilometres (185 miles) southeast from where Iraqi forces are battling to snuff out IS.
Bandar al-Hamami said he had walked some 350 kilometres with his family from their home in the southern city of Nasiriyah.
"Thanks be to God, we are finished with IS," he said.