BAGHDAD (Reuters) - One person was killed by rocket fire on Friday in the Iraqi city of Kerbala where huge crowds of Shi‘ite pilgrims have gathered for religious ceremonies, a local police commander said.
He said the dead person was a Kerbala resident and the rocket which killed him was fired from north of the city, an area where radical Sunni Islamic State fighters have battled Iraq’s army and Shi‘ite militia.
Iraqi officials say millions of Shi‘ite pilgrims from across Iraq and neighboring countries are expected in Kerbala for Saturday’s Arbain ritual, which marks the last of 40 days mourning for the death 1,300 years ago of Imam Hussein.
Hussein’s death in battle is a defining point in Shi‘ite history and the schism between Sunni and Shi‘ite Muslims.
Officials have said they expect Sunni militants to target Arbain, which is likely to be attended by a record number of foreign visitors after Iraqi authorities waived visa fees this year during the Arbain period.
This year’s ceremonies come six months after Islamic State swept through much of northern Iraq and cemented its hold over Anbar province to the west of Baghdad.
Kerbala, 50 miles (80 km) southwest of Baghdad, has remained firmly under government control but there has been heavy fighting this year just 20 miles to the north.
In the town of Muqdadiya, northeast of Baghdad, five people were killed at a Shi‘ite religious site by a suicide bomber and a wave of mortar bombs, security and medical sources said.
They said the suicide bomber embraced the guard at the ‘Husseiniya’, where Shi‘ites gather to remember Hussein, before detonating his bomb. Mortars were then fired at the site.
Islamic State fighters follow a radical ideology which considers Shi‘ite Muslims as heretics and have targeted them across the swathes of Iraq and Syria where their group has declared a caliphate.
Since the United States launched air strikes against the group it has been pushed back by the Iraqi army, Kurdish fighters and Shi‘ite militias. But it still controls many towns in the mainly Sunni Muslim parts of northern and western Iraq.
Reporting by Dominic Evans; Editing by Janet Lawrence