Over the coming week terrorists are likely to attack Shi’ah worshippers marking the religious period of al-‘Ashura. Many pilgrims will travel to the holy city of Karbala for the event, which culminates on 17 December and has seen numerous bouts of violence in recent years. Security will be tighter than normal, but roadside attacks against those travelling throughout the country will remain a possibility. Iranian pilgrims are likely to be a highly prized target but many will still brave the journey in vehicles travelling across the central provinces of Iraq. A number of people, including Iranians, have been killed and injured in bomb blasts targeting minibuses in the capital over recent days.
The majority of attacks will target key routes, main checkpoints and vehicles. In an attempt to reduce the risk of violence a curfew may also be imposed, potentially at short notice in the coming days. This could affect ordinary travel plans in Baghdad and neighbouring provinces such as Wassit, Diyala and Babil, as well as around Karbala itself. Checkpoint guards are likely to be highly vigilant at this time, and many will be concerned at the risk of possible suicide bombings.
Implications for the Shi’ah South
Even though explosive tactics are uncommon in the southern Shi’ah cities there will remain a risk of possible terrorist attacks even here. Basrah and Amarah have been targeted during the month of Muharram in the past and a number of arrests have been made over the past two weeks. The motivation of any such attacks will be to stir up sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shi’ahs, as Sunni terrorists will most likely be blamed for any violence.
Road travel may be impeded by congestion and travel restriction so personnel may wish to defer non-essential journeys around the event. Otherwise, when approaching checkpoints it will be very important to comply with all requests and to avoid acting erratically. The security forces will be looking for would-be terrorists and unusual behaviour could raise their suspicions unnecessarily. In general, personnel should also avoid Shi’ah mosques, commemorations, funerals and other religious gatherings for the duration of the event, while those specific intent on visiting for personal or even filming purposes are advised to exercise caution, try to avoid the most crowded of ceremonies and be prepared to get out of an area at short notice.
Al-‘Ashura is not strictly a festival. It is a much more sombre affair marking the death of Husayn ibn Ali, a revered Shi’ah figure and grandson of the Prophet Mohammed. He died during the battle of Karbala’ in the seventh century AD at the time when Sunni and Shi’ah Islam became separate branches. The event therefore not only commemorates his death, but underscores the tragic separation of Iraqi’s two largest communities. Note that the period also occasionally sees attacks on Shi’ah communities elsewhere in the Islamic world. Possible flashpoints could include Shi’ah mosques and gatherings in Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan for example, although Iraq continues to see the worst of the bloodshed.
John F Drake is a senior risk consultant with AKE Group, a British private security firm working in Iraq from before 2003. Further details on the company can be found at www.akegroup.com/iraq
You can also follow John on twitter at www.twitter.com/johnfdrake