Shi'ites gather in Iraq's Kerbala for mourning rite

KERBALA, Iraq (Reuters) - Chanting and flailing themselves in mourning for Imam Hussein, hundreds of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims from around the world gathered in the Iraqi city of Kerbala on Friday for one of the most sacred rituals in their religious calendar.

Arbain marks the culmination of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala.

Shi'ites believe his remains are entombed there. Exhausted pilgrims, including women carrying their children, marched long distances to reach the shrines. Many, arriving by air from Iran, Pakistan or Bahrain, had landed in Baghdad several days earlier.

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Shi'ites gather in Iraq's Kerbala for mourning rite
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Shi'ites gather in Iraq's Kerbala for mourning rite

Shi'ite Muslim men beat themselves with their hands in mourning for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 24, 2017.

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims reach out to touch the tomb of Imam Abbas, located inside the Imam Abbas shrine to mark Arbaeen, in Kerbala, Iraq, November 7, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite pilgrims gather during the commemoration of Arbain, in Kerbala, Iraq, November 5, 2017. Arbain marks the culmination of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

An actor is dressed as Imam Abbas to re-enact a scene from the 7th century battle of Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 27, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite Muslim men carry a religious flag expressing their love to Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 27, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A man working at the shrine of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala, sits in a street in Kerbala, Iraq, September 26, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

An actor dresses as Imam Abbas to re-enact a scene from the 7th century battle of Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 27, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite pilgrims gather during the commemoration of Arbain, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 28, 2017. Arbain marks the culmination of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite Muslim men beat themselves with their hands in mourning for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 24, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Iranian Muslims flagellate themselves with chains in mourning for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 28, 2017.

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite Muslim men pray in a tent which is set up to provide a place for pilgrims to rest, in Kerbala, Iraq November 2, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A member of the Air Defense Command gives medicine to Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims coming to Kerbala, Iraq, November 3, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite old man sits next to a poster of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 22, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Iraqi Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims walk in a street of Kerbala, Iraq, September 26, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A tailor works on religious flags at a market, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 25, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A woman holds a banner stained with a red dye expressing grief, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite Muslim men flagellate themselves in mourning for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 29, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Men give free massage to Shi'ite pilgrims arriving on foot from different cities in Kerbala, Iraq, November 2, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Chains, with which the Shi'ite Muslims flagellate themselves, hang in Kerbala, Iraq, September 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite Muslims sit in a tent which is set up to provide a place for pilgrims to rest, in Kerbala, Iraq, November 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite pilgrims gather during the commemoration of Arbain, in Kerbala, Iraq, November 6, 2017. Arbain marks the culmination of a 40-day mourning period for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Men serve free tea to Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims in Kerbala, Iraq, September 27, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A man shows a tattoo on his hand which reads: "Imam Ali", in Kerbala, Iraq, November 1, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A man sharpens knives used by Shi'ite Muslim men to flagellate themselves in mourning for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Shi'ite Muslim men prepare to flagellate themselves in mourning for Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammed who was killed in a 7th century battle in Kerbala, in Kerbala, Iraq, September 28, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

Houses provided for Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims walking to Kerbala, stand on the outskirt of Kerbala, Iraq, November 2, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

A Shi'ite Muslim man walks to Kerbala in Hela, Iraq, November 2, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Abdullah Dhiaa Al-deen)

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Kerbala, 50 miles south of the capital, was cloaked in black because of the robes worn by pilgrims, and bedecked in a sea of flags.

Saddam Hussein, a Sunni, banned Shi'ite gatherings for religious events for decades.

Pilgrims have gathered in sacred Shi'ite cities including Kerbala and Najaf for religious duties since a U.S.-led invasion toppled him in 2003.

But those gatherings were marred by suicide bombings carried out by Sunni militants, notably from al Qaeda and Islamic State, who regard Iraq's majority Shi'ites as infidels.

Now that those groups have largely been defeated by U.S.-backed Iraqi security forces, Shi'ite pilgrims may have more peace of mind during this year's Arbain, though security remains tight across the country.

Groups of people build camps where they cook, share food with others, and display decorative objects. Banners featuring Imam Hussein’s words are put up on walls and buildings.  

The ritual is a time for sorrow and self-reflection.

Mourning Shi'ites listen to recollections of how Hussein and his family were killed. The theme of martyrdom dominates, as pilgrims gash their foreheads with swords and beat themselves with chains.

Hussein's death is interpreted by Shi'ites as a symbol of the struggle against injustice and oppression.

Tents have been set up in Kerbala to provide a resting place for pilgrims, where men serve them cups of free tea.

Others offer free massages to those arriving on foot from different cities, while tailors work on religious flags at a market.

(Writing by Michael Georgy; editing by John Stonestreet)

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