Nearly 11,000 members of Iran’s special police units will be present in the Arbaeen Pilgrimage, a Shi’ite religious ceremony annually held in Iraq.
Speaking to the state-run Mehr news agency on Monday, the Special Unit Chief Commander, Brigadier General Hassan Karami said that 7,500 of his forces, forming 24 battalions, will be “directly involved” in the ritual.
Furthermore, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps General (IRGC) noted that 3,000 of his troops would be on stand-by until the end of the week-long ceremony.
The IRGC commander also disclosed that up to 30,000 of the Iranian police force would also attend the ceremony, expanding from Iran into Iraq.
Arbaeen, one of the largest religious gatherings in the world, comes forty days after Ashura, the day the third Shiite Imam, Hussein (Husayn) ibn Ali was killed in a battle in 680 AD in Karbala, Iraq.
Since the fall of Saddam Hussain, each year, a huge crowd of Shiites swarms the city of Karbala, where the they believe the shrine of Hussein ibn Ali is located, to perform mourning rites.
Iran’s Special Unit police is responsible for the most difficult part of the pilgrimage when the pilgrims crowd in an area 10-15 kilometers (approximately 6-9 miles) wide at Iran-Iraq border Karami said. “We conduct a vigorous intelligence operation while having forces embedded among the pilgrims,” Karami noted.
Although Special Unit’s responsibility is confronting with public protests across Iran, it has extended its realm in recent years into Iraq, during the annual pilgrimage.
Last year, more than 1.5 million Iranian pilgrims entered Iraq for the Arbaeen mourning ceremony.
However, the pilgrimage this year has coincided with widespread anti-government demonstrations inside Iraq. Many protesters have accused the Islamic Republic of directly having a hand in suppressing Iraqi protesters.
An Iraqi interviewed by Reuters last week said that Persian-speaking Iranians, not Iraqi forces, have been shooting at people during Iraq’s recent deadly protests.
“There is no work; you come to protest, they fire at you. Live gunfire. They (suppressors) are all Iranian, speaking in Farsi. You want to speak to them; they answer in Farsi. The Iraqis would not fire at you,” an Iraqi protester told Reuters.
Iranian police units have provided security in recent years during Arbaeen, but obviously this year there are different conditions because of Iraqi protests.
Tehran, for its part, has accused Saudi Arabia and the U.S. of inciting the protests to prevent the Arbaeen ceremony.
The Islamic Republic Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in his first reaction to the violence in Iraq described the protests as a “plot” designed by the “enemies” [Riyadh, Tel Aviv, and Washington] and an attempt to “sow seeds of discord” among Iranians and Iraqis.
Khamenei’s direct representative in Iran’s hardliner Kayhan daily, Hossein Shariatmadari, had also made similar accusations. He claimed that the protests in Iraq were instigated “by America and other foreign elements,” and urged Iraqis to “occupy the U.S. embassy in Baghdad like the Iranians did in 1979, in Tehran.”