The religious holiday of Arbaeen, celebrated by Shi'a Muslims around the world, is set to take place on Thursday, November 9, and Friday, November 10. The Iraqi city of Karbala (65 km [40 mi] southwest of the capital Baghdad) will see an influx of an estimated 20 million pilgrims coming to pay homage to Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in the battle of Karbala in 680 AD. Foot processions from various areas of Iraq are already underway (as of November 3), and will commence from Baghdad shortly. Transportation disruptions and increased security are likely in majority Shi'a neighborhoods and on pilgrimage routes between various Iraqi cities and the Karbala shrine. Short-notice lane and full route closures are likely.
As with other major Shi'a religious festivals, there is an increased likelihood of Sunni extremist groups, including the Islamic State (IS), targeting Shi'a Muslims in terrorist attacks during Arbaeen.
Arbaeen falls forty days after Ashura, ending a period of mourning commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain.
On September 14, 2017, more than 80 people were killed in a suicide attack on a restaurant in Dhi Qar province frequented by Shi'a Muslim pilgrims traveling for the Ashura religious festival in southern Iraq. The attack was later claimed by IS. IS has less operational capacity in the Shi'a-dominated south; however, the group retains the intent and capabilities to conduct high-profile attacks and often prioritizes major public gatherings such as Arbaeen processions. The Iraqi and Kurdish militaries' recent successes against IS are likely to spur retaliatory attacks and there is evidence to assume that as IS continues to lose its territory it will increasingly employ asymmetrical means of warfare (e.g. terrorist tactics).
Exercise caution during Arbaeen celebrations in Shi'a communities, particularly in the central regions where Shi'a and Sunni communities are intermingled. Caution is also advised in the 48 hours following the commemorations as IS has previously targeted returning pilgrims after major religious festivals to take advantage of the easing of security and travel restrictions. Foreign personnel also should remain aware of cultural and religious sensitivities; failure to observe local customs regarding the display of flags and other symbols has sparked major protests in the past.
More generally, the security environment in Iraq remains complex. Although travel is permissible in some areas, other areas should be considered strictly off-limits. Professional security advice and support should be sought prior to all travel. Due to the prevailing terrorist threat, individuals should remain vigilant and report any suspicious objects or behavior to the authorities. Always be on guard when visiting sites deemed particularly likely to be targeted in an attack (public transportation, train stations, ports, airports, public or government buildings, embassies or consulates, international organizations, schools and universities, religious sites, markets, hotels and restaurants frequented by foreigners/Westerners, festivals, etc.).
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