The Shi’ite holiday of Arba’een is marked with the world’s largest pilgrimage. Twenty-two million Shi’ites traveled by foot to the city of Karbala to mourn at the tomb of a grandson of Mohammed’s Hussein ibn Ali, considered an Imam. The day marks the end of a forty-day period of mourning following another holiday, Ashura, and taken together the two holidays underline the division between Sunni and Shia Islam. For Sunnis, the holiday of Ashura celebrates the freeing of the Jews from the Egyptian captivity. For Shi’ite Muslims, it is instead the day of the death of ibn Ali at the hands of Sunni forces and the beginning of their annual mourning of his death and the subsequent victory of Sunni Islam in their early civil war.
This year Iraq is formally protesting the failure of Iran to stop thousands of pilgrims from storming their shared border without proper visas or checks. Iraq’s interior ministry accused its Iranian counterparts of having refused to take proper steps to ensure that pilgrims were controlled, and instead allowing thousands of them to come together and storm a border checkpoint. “We hold the Iranian side responsible because they did not fulfill their duties and obligations” to prevent those without visas from approaching the crossing, the ministry said, adding that its guards had the legal right to shoot the pilgrims but had elected to refrain.
The editorial board of Lebanon’s Daily Star accused Iran of violating both security and hospitality, the latter a very serious charge in the cultures of the Middle East. Hospitality is absolutely vital to survival in the deserts out of which many of the cultural norms of the Middle East developed. The concept of the duty to offer hospitality and not to abuse the offer of it plays an outsized role in Islamic law as a consequence of Islam’s early period in the deep deserts, coupled with Islam’s subsequent adoption of an intense legal focus on early precedents as a means of preserving in later generations something of the spirit of the days of their prophet and his companions. It is especially strong in those parts of the Middle East, including much of Iraq outside of Mesopotamia, that are still desert cultures.
The Arba’een pilgrimage was banned during the leadership of Saddam Hussein, both as a means of suppressing Shi’a Islam and for security reasons. The sudden movement of millions of people across the countryside, although on foot, creates massive security challenges. This year a suicide bomber managed to kill nine pilgrims. The attack, on a security checkpoint along the route, also wounded 21 additional pilgrims. Though it has not claimed responsibility the Islamic State is suspected to be responsible, an explicitly Sunni terrorist organization aimed at restoring the rule of Sunni caliphs over the entire Islamic world — or perhaps the entire world simpliciter.
Another suicide bomber killed fifteen pilgrims and wounded thirty-eight. A third killed five, and wounded seventeen. Separately, Iraqi Security Forces shot and killed terrorists attempting to attack the pilgrims in the capital city of Baghdad. This level of violence is not uncommon given the massive number of soft targets, and the incredible challenges facing security forces due to the movement of so many at once.
Those same security challenges are what permitted the Iranian violation of Iraq’s border. The Zurbattiyah border point, east of Baghdad, is in a mainly Kurdish region of Wasit province. Though it was upgraded into a modern facility by US forces during the Iraq War, the weight of numbers allowed the pilgrims to smash fences and rush the checkpoints.
It is unclear if the Iranian government merely failed to do its duty, as the Iraqi government charges, or whether it elected to permit the rush as a vector for infiltration of some of its operatives. Iraq is already heavily reliant on Iran for support in its war against the Islamic State, and Iran’s Quds Force can move freely, as can official Iranian missile forces that have been approved for deployment on Iraqi soil. All the same, Iran may have had reasons to want to introduce teams into Iraq through unofficial channels. The violation of Iraqi sovereignty gave them the opportunity to do so. That they would also violate the deeply-felt custom of hospitality suggests that it is not beyond them.