Over two days, about 80 Iranian pilgrims were killed in April in suicide bombings in Iraq. The pilgrims are a favored target for Sunni extremists in Iraq, but it seems nothing will keep them away.
On a recent afternoon, pilgrims from the Iranian city of Isfahan – many in tears – inched toward the shimmering golden-domed shrine, chanting “Hussein beloved” in Persian. Inside, Iranians jostled to grip the ornate cage-like structure bearing the tomb of Prophet Muhammad's grandson Imam Hussein.
Religion compels them. But Iran's government is part of the equation, too, supporting companies that control a segment of the pilgrimage business and renovating and maintaining Shiite shrines in Iraq.
The pilgrimages present an example of Iran's rising soft power in Iraq that Iraqis resent.
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The Interior Ministry has banned Persian signs in Karbala despite the fact most Iranian pilgrims speak no Arabic.
In April, Karbala's residents protested the awarding of a contract to an Iranian company, Al Kawthar, to renovate the historic city center, including the area around the shrines of Imam Hussein and his brother Abu Fadhil al-Abbas, part of a $100-million project.
“We are Arabs, we will not accept to be colonized by anyone,” said Ali al-Hayawi, a hotel owner in Karbala catering to pilgrims, who opposes Iran's involvement in the project.
The dynamic suggests Iran may have a hard time exerting deep sway among Iraqis, even fellow Shiites. But at the national level, the relationship is more a tug-of-war. Iraq may want to keep Iran at arm's length, but it also needs Iran economically and as an ally.
The two predominantly Shiite countries share an 800-mile border and historical, cultural and trade ties, but attitudes on both sides remain colored by ancient enmities and an eight-year war in the 1980s. Saddam Hussein let Iranian pilgrims back into Iraq in the mid-90s, but it was a fraction of the current number and they were under the constant watch of his secret police.
Iraq signed a deal with Iran in 2005 to allow up to 5,000 Iranian pilgrims in each day. Tehran wants to send more and to improve the infrastructure in the shrine cities to allow it.
Karbala, for instance, gets millions of visitors yearly but has a maximum hotel capacity of 23,000, local officials say.
Many Iraqis welcome the pilgrims' business. But many bristle at Iran's perceived meddling in internal politics, especially through the governing Iraqi Shiite parties nurtured by Iran for years.